Source: Review copy, Netgalley
Publication: 7th October 2010 from Random House Audio
Length: 9 hrs 52 mins
My thanks to the publisher for this review copy
For Ned, 1980 seems a blissful year. Handsome, charming, popular and talented, his life is progressing smoothly, effortlessly, happily. And when he meets the lovely Portia Fendeman his personal jigsaw appears complete. But timing is everything in life, and his life is about to change for ever.
Things are going to get very bad indeed for innocent young Ned. A promise made to a dying teacher and a spiteful trick played by fellow pupils will rocket Ned from cricket captain to solitary confinement, from head boy to hell. When Ned emerges he is a man bent on just one thing – revenge; and revenge is a dish he plans to savour and serve to those who conspired against him.
Part love story, part thriller, a gloriously rich mix that only Stephen Fry can dish up to us, The Stars’ Tennis Balls will leave you happy and replete.
I’m not really sure why this audiobook popped up on Netgalley recently. I can only say I am delighted that it did. Written and narrated by Stephen Fry, The Stars’ Tennis Balls is an absolute delight from start to finish.
Loosely modelled on the outline of the story of the Count of Monte Cristo, Fry brings us a tale that enchants and delights. The Stars’ Tennis Balls is a revenge tragedy intelligently told with brio and wit. The title comes from John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi –“We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and bandied which way please them.”
Having no idea what to expect, the opening took me by surprise. A tale of public school and snobbery; of boys and their casual cruelty and of friendships and betrayals. It starts as a bittersweet love story and soon turns into a full throttle story of callous betrayal and bitter rivalry.
Our protagonist, the Edmond Dantès character, is Ned Maddstone, a naïve young man with his whole life in front of him. He is good-looking, applies himself to his studies and is popular. He is of course, Head Boy at his school and his father is Charles Maddstone, war hero, retired Brigadier of the Guards, ex colonial administrator, and a cabinet minister in the Conservative government. His destiny seems assured. He is envied by some of his fellow pupils, but Ned is a generous boy who only wants to see the best in people. He is something of an innocent at large. Ned is also head over heels in love with Portia Fendeman a delightful girl whose Morning Star reading parents, Peter and Hilary, are aghast at their daughter’s relationship with such a bastion of the right. But Ned’s love is reciprocated, as so eloquently and lightly displayed in the love letters that flow between them, and Ned has everything he wants in life.
Sadly that will not last.
Ashley Barson-Garland is everything that Ned is not. Duplicitous even at an early age, he is a cunning sneak with a burning inferiority complex and he wants what Ned has. Ned introduces Ashley to his father and Ashley manages to charm his way into a job. When Portia’s cousin Gordon arrives in London from the States, the stage is set for the rocket that will set Ned’s life on a different course.
Fry writes with a light and humorous touch and still manages a nuanced, layered story that works on a range of levels. Class, politics and betrayal are the underpinnings of this revenge tragedy. The narration is glorious.
Verdict: This is a clever and well-constructed book with a series of deeply improbable events that you will enjoy swallowing whole. It wears its learning lightly. Stephen Fry’s novel is beautifully judged, a delight to listen to and woven through with humour even as it sends up the obsessive pretensions of Britain’s class system. It’s a tale with a moral compass and none the worse for that. I really enjoyed it and I will look out more of Fry’s work.
Stephen Fry is an English actor and author. As well as being the bestselling author of four novels, The Stars’ Tennis Balls, Making History, The Hippopotamus, and The Liar, and the first volume of his autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, he has played Peter in Peter’s Friends, Wilde in the film Wilde, Jeeves in the television series Jeeves & Wooster and Laurie in the television series Fry & Laurie.