In America, you can make fun of rednecks, resent other people’s wealth and vote for politicians who mythologize the middle class—without ever being quite sure what class you belong to.

Our relationship to class is utterly confusing and deeply unsatisfying. Often, we’re unclear about what class a love object, co-worker, boss or enemy came from. For the upwardly mobile, declaring your class might be a mistake: You could always do better. Then again, you might not be doing as well as you hoped. Here, more than elsewhere, that would actually be seen as your own fault.

Social mobility can be unforgiving, more cruel than the alternative, and that’s why many Americans prefer to say class doesn’t matter. It’s more of a taboo than we admit, and this has turned us into a nation of tourists where class is concerned. Inclined to fetishize any country less fluid than our own, we gaze across the Atlantic at a society that doesn’t hide its class distinctions under a fig leaf, and often find the contrast alluring.

Julian Fellowes knows how to mine America’s fondness for an irrelevant upstairs-downstairs fantasy, but his Academy Award for the screenplay of “Gosford Park” could give you the wrong impression about his novels, which deal, instead, with intimate realities and mutable hierarchies.

Pregnancy on the razor’s edge was central, in his debut novel, “Snobs,” to the hair-raising maneuvers of the heroine—and it played an important role in the denouement of “Gosford Park.” Fellowes is obsessed with the ability of a woman’s body to rewrite history, as is the romantically thwarted (unnamed) narrator of his second novel, “Past Imperfect.”

book cover

Past Imperfect

By Julian Fellowes

St. Martin’s Press, 416 pages

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After a long career in film and theater, Fellowes displays a knack for commercial fiction that feels dishy and humane. I wasn’t so much ravished as efficiently seduced by “Snobs”—he made me care about a surprisingly undisciplined social climber who marries an earl and nearly loses her footing over a good-looking but decidedly middle-class TV actor. “Snobs” was about the perils of class mobility in the 1990s, while “Gosford Park” (set in 1932) owes its popularity to a class hierarchy so rigid and grotesque that it qualifies as a kind of movie monster.

“Past Imperfect” suggests another visit to the Gosford Park museum: When the narrator recalls “doing the Season at the end of the Sixties,” his flashbacks evoke the 1930s. There’s also a paternity puzzle. Fortunately, this isn’t a museum lecture.

The puzzle presents itself as a case of doubtful maternity sparked by an anonymous letter—postmarked Chelsea, signed by “A fool”—from someone who gave birth to a child almost 40 years before the opening of the novel.

Narrating this reproductive whodunit is a pinched, self-critical bachelor who isn’t as likable as the (also nameless) narrator of “Snobs.” Whether pontificating about a major cultural shift (“I am not glad the tradition of dancing with one’s friends’ parents has gone”) or the sins of the small-minded, he can’t stay off the soapbox. And he’s not very nice to his girlfriend. Eventually I grew to appreciate him, but it wasn’t love at first sight.

Our melancholy upper-class bachelor is a modestly successful novelist whose father has retired from the Foreign Office. Damian Baxter, a middle-class schoolmate he introduced to London society in the ’60s, reappears after a lengthy, embittering absence, very rich and intent on locating—with the narrator’s help—a child he may have fathered. Armed with a new platinum card from Damian and a list of former debutantes, he goes hunting through Damian’s past, only to confront his own.

“I used to think that Damian Baxter was my invention,” he recalls. Though Damian never drops an H, he has a few things in common with Shaw’s (rather than Lerner and Lowe’s) Eliza Doolittle. “Too late to do much good,” our Pygmalion-like narrator learns what professor Higgins learned: that “just because you start people off, you do not control them thereafter, nor do you have the right to pretend that you do.” He also discovers that every girl he ever wanted to kiss, Damian once managed to bonk. “I was so jealous I wanted to kill almost anybody,” he admits—though it all happened four decades ago.

We then trace the intrigues, marriages, divorces, deaths—and pregnancies—of Damian’s known conquests, each her own kind of debutante. Many tables are turned, and middle-class conquest is about much more than sexual appetite. Damian was a formidable catch—”Heartbreaker of the Year.” As Lucy the rebellious deb observes in 1968, “he’s got the one quality … we all lack.” He understands “the rules of the Game as it will be played in the future, not as it used to be.”

In 2007, after having proved Lucy right, Damian is dying of pancreatic cancer. Too weak to leave his Surrey mansion, he calls on the narrator to find out which woman on his short list is the anonymous author of the note and mother to his child. “I’m dying and I have no beliefs,” he says, but immortality is in his sights—if he can find the unknown child to inherit his fortune.

This makes for some wonderfully addictive soap opera: We get to see each candidate progressing from ’68 into the present. We meet the women’s families, learn who their husbands are (and aren’t), and see how social class has shaped their lives. Princess Dagmar of Moravia has a bossy mother from Leeds who inherited enough money from a “discreetly invisible” father (in the package holiday industry) to save the royal line from poverty. Unfortunately, Dagmar has ended up married to an abusive banker. His verbal bullying is a convincing (and chilling) portrait of what can happen when a resentful spouse overcomes a social handicap. Few couples in this story are happy. Candida and Harry were the lucky exception: Candida, who risked social rejection when barely out of her teens, was rewarded by fate for her courage. Unfortunately, she is now a widow.

Each woman seems, for five minutes at least, the likeliest to be the mother of Damian’s child. When the two men find out the truth, the surprise comes from laying bare their faulty assumptions about the female meaning of just one word. (Much as I’d like to elaborate, this is a plot that should not be spoiled.)

The characters in “Past Imperfect” have always known that their social class is far more than a label—it’s the place where “they have to take you in.” Social mobility can be deeply alluring and very necessary, but it’s a source of anxiety. No matter how much property you acquire on the way up, being liberated from class identity means being, in some sense, homeless.

In “Past Imperfect” there is enough nostalgic detail about aristocratic life to entertain the class fetishists, but middle-class ambition, disappointment and rage are strategically combined to keep the pages turning and the heart engaged.

Tracy Quan’s latest novel is “Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl,” a sequel to “Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl.”

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