Double Blind starts strong, but character and plot development struggle by the novel's end. Still, Edward St. Aubyn masterfully explores many of the themes found in Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit including philanthropy, the human desire for control, and the corruption of immense wealth.
Francis is an ecologist, intent on returning large patches of land to the wild. He meets Olivia at an Oxford conference and immediately falls in love: “They had only spent one night together, but it had the tentative intensity of a love affair rather than the practiced abandon of hedonism.” The couple assists Olivia’s good friend, Lucy, who discovers she has brain cancer shortly after starting a new position finding worthy innovations for her billionaire boss, Hunter. Hunter is spoiled, surrounded by sycophants and regularly fueled by drugs until he falls in love with Lucy.
Olivia and Francis start spending time with Lucy, Hunter and wealthy friends – and the book’s easy banter examines how Hunter and other philanthropists influence career scientists, and the more forthright scientists can temper impulsivity, waste and extremism. When Hunter first meets Lucy and tells her about his foundation, she responds: “To a foreign eye, America has so much philanthropy and so little charity. Most people have to kill themselves to prove that they deserve ordinary kindness, while a tiny group of people never stop boasting about how generous they are – as long as it’s tax-deductible.”
Like Allure of Deceit, the book captures how charity is more about donor image and contentment than support for recipients. Early on, Hunter is interested in funding only big, splashy ideas and he dismisses problems like schizophrenia because the illness only affects 1 percent of the population, most of whom are poor. Lucy rejects such thinking, but she, too, is impatient with science’s narrow specializations, mindless quests for tenure and secure funding.
Olivia is the most traditional and serious scientist of the group while Francis may be the most intellectual, at one point noting “The point was not to assert beliefs, but to remove the rubble of delusion that constituted almost all beliefs.” Yet he remains defensive about the anecdotal nature of his research and meager income. He is annoyed by career biologists, alluding to the depressing work of documenting the decline of species and referring to dissection labs as “random murder.” In an early conversation with Olivia, Francis - who felt “the weight of ecological doom … sometimes so great that he had felt the pressure of misanthropy and despair” early in life - “couldn’t help noticing the strangely cheerful, almost rivalrous way they had discussed the death of nature.”
When Olivia and Francis first fall in love, he expresses aspirations similar to those of Henry David Thoreau, and she expects him to devote the most time caring for their expected child. But wealth, career recognition and control are alluring, and Francis succumbs to the temptations presented by another billionaire who donates a massive sum to an international ecology project that she expects Francis to lead. The relationship between Francis and Olivia may not survive his constant introspection about the human role in natural wilderness – and his tendency of “identifying with one non-human animal after another.” But Olivia is practical: “babies weren’t born to redeem or justify other people’s lives, they were born to have their own life.”
In the end, a schizophrenic twin may express more contentment and self-awareness than the most educated characters. That man has secured his first job working in a kitchen, funded by – of course – another wealthy philanthropist who lost his own son to suicide. The young man's goal is pursuing a life that comes close to being ordinary with the ability, as Sigmund Freud once wrote, to transform “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” At one point, the schizophrenic character tells his therapist: “Sometimes things are more powerful when you know they’re not true, because you have to imagine them so hard….”
A determined imagination is useful in setting life goals and finding contentment.