Hunting Unicorns

Hunting Unicorns

4.0 4
by Bella Pollen

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"Readers who have not yet discovered Bella Pollen will be delighted with her witty take on men, women, and English and American life, culture, and morays. Hunting Unicorns is a piercingly sharp treat!"

- Tama Janowitz, author of Peyton Amberg and Slaves of New York

"Readers will adore this witty insider's take on the archaic way of life of


"Readers who have not yet discovered Bella Pollen will be delighted with her witty take on men, women, and English and American life, culture, and morays. Hunting Unicorns is a piercingly sharp treat!"

- Tama Janowitz, author of Peyton Amberg and Slaves of New York

"Readers will adore this witty insider's take on the archaic way of life of a British aristocratic clan. A hilarious but bittersweet love story that juxtaposes the old world with the new."

- Plum Sykes, author of Bergdorf Blondes

"Hunting Unicorns—warm, funny, real, unpredictable—is one of the best novels I've read this year."

- Melissa Senate, author of See Jane Date

"A terrific novel. Bella Pollen has captured the essence of the characters and their story in the most original way, with brilliant flashes of humor and deep poignancy that stay with you long after you have turned the last page."

- Christiane Amanpour, CNN

"Hits the spot every time with her funny and frank observations of modern London life."

- Sunday Times (UK)

"Hilariously accurate . . . Pollen is undoubtedly a gifted writer with a pithy, poetic style."

- Daily Mail (UK)

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Pollen's flashy, witty, urbane romantic comedy digs affectionately at the blue-blooded English. Assigned by current affairs show Newsline to determine if the English aristocracy is "a dying breed who after centuries of appalling behaviour were finally getting their comeuppance," American journalist Maggie Monroe enlists the help of the London agency Stately Locations to meet and interview the well-born owners of those homes. Beleaguered Rory Jones runs the agency, which nets needy owners of crumbling great houses tourist money; unbeknownst to Maggie, he's also the heir of the exalted Bevan family thanks to the untimely death of his older brother, Daniel. Maggie and her film crew brush up on Burke's Peerage and invade the English countryside, running over peacocks and smoking pot in pricelessly appointed bedrooms. Despite Rory's injunction, Maggie ventures to the Bevan mansion and wins over Rory's dotty parents. As cousin to the queen, Rory's father, Earl Alistair, is "pure Newsline Gold... and a total anachronism." He's also an impoverished and rather sweet alcoholic-and the son of a Nazi collaborationist. Pollen (All About Men) ventures into these and other dicey areas dealing with the old aristocracy (i.e., sex) in a most engaging, irreverent manner, using alternate points of view for Maggie and Daniel, who, from beyond the grave, observes the action with wry detachment. Pollen's characterizations veer into the stereotypical, but charmingly so; in the end, Maggie and Rory are two young people in search of authentic experience, despite differences of birth and country. Agent, Sarah Lutyens at Lutyens and Rubinstein (U.K.). (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Readers who have not yet discovered Bella Pollen will be delighted with her witty take on men, women, and English and American life, culture, and morays. Hunting Unicorns is a piercingly sharp treat!"

-Tama Janowitz

"Readers will adore this witty insider's take on the archaic way of life of a British aristocratic clan. A hilarious but bittersweet love story that juxtaposes the old world with the new."

- Plum Sykes, author of Bergdorf Blondes

"A terrific novel. Bella Pollen has captured the essence of the characters and their story in the most original way, with brilliant flashes of humor and deep poignancy that stay with you long after you have turned the last page."

- Christiane Amanpour, CNN

"Hunting Unicorns - warm, funny, real, unpredictable-is one of the best novels I've read this year."

-Melissa Senate, author of See Jane Date

Tama Janowitz
"Readers who have not yet discovered Bella Pollen will be delighted with her witty take on men, women, and English and American life, culture, and morays....."

Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.46(w) x 10.84(h) x 0.95(d)

Read an Excerpt

Hunting Unicorns

By Bella Pollen

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Bella Pollen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6350-7



My mother and father drank. Water, whisky, wine. It was all the same to them. Any time, anyplace, anywhere. Curiously they never appeared drunk. Instead they existed in a semi-inebriated world, never allowing themselves to fall below a certain level of intoxication as though to do so would be bad manners – like appearing at breakfast not quite fully clothed. They had two children. Two small boys who watched their parents drink. Both grew up to be deeply affected by this habit. That is to say Rory became a teetotaller, and I, an alcoholic.

* * *

The first time I took myself off to a meeting I wrote this down – just in case it was the sort of place where you were pressured into a confession, but it's not like that here. Your peers don't pressure you so much as bore you into submission. The first meeting was so inexcusably dull I swore it would be the last and it would have been had it not been for the eleventh- hour appearance of the fantastically pretty girl. Some gorgeous accident left the chair next to me vacant and one whiff of her scent; earthy, flowery, sold me on the merits of AA and had there been a year's contract I would have signed on the dotted line there and then. But she didn't turn up to the following meeting nor the one after that. In ten minutes we're supposed to be starting this week's session and there's still no sign of her. I've now made a major management decision. If she doesn't come through the door within, say, five minutes ... I'm off to the pub. I don't have the energy for this bollocks. There are more pressing matters to be dealt with – the nuts and bolts that actually underpin people's lives. Right now, there's all this stuff waiting on my desk – articles to be written, mail to be opened, bills to be paid ...

This afternoon, for instance, I was supposed to turn in my piece for the Spectator. The editor called, screaming obscenities a couple of hours ago. It's not that it's a difficult piece to write. The subject matter is interesting enough but I seem to have no words to put to it.

For some time now I've been juggling the various incompatible factions in my life but lately it seems I'm in danger of dropping a ball or two. The fact is, I'm having trouble writing under the influence of sobriety. Usually I'm unable to contemplate any kind of work until I've downed a half bottle of red wine. Alcohol gets the blood to the head, unblocks the channels. As words flow, I write them down and print them out. Then I send them off and get paid for my trouble. This is a system and it works, but now that I'm semi-programme, quasi-AA or, more specifically, no alcohol before the six o'clock watershed, the system seems to have crashed.

* * *

They say that the moment you realize you're an alcoholic is the moment you're scared of living without alcohol. Perhaps this is true for some people but not for me. I have known since childhood I was an alcoholic, since long before I ever tasted the stuff. I am what's known as a genetic junkie. Much of what I have in life is inherited, unfortunately not all of it good. Whatever the distinguishing feature that ties other families together, ours is a gene, a wayward one that has ripped through our family tree like a tornado, dropping the fruit of our ancestors to the ground, leaving generations of us destined to become rotten, pickled and canned.

Rory expends much energy fighting this gene, I on the other hand have embraced it. I don't see the point in not. To spend your life struggling against your own DNA seems pretty damn futile. It's who I am. It's on the swab from the inside of my cheek, it's in my blood, in every bead of sweat and no doubt in every puff of carbon dioxide I exhaled into that police breathalyser last night.

'But we're the generation that can kick it,' Rory says.

But you can't kick it, as you can be sure I'll be telling the group one day, because it ain't no football. Besides, I'm not convinced it should be kicked. Instability is the root of creativity and I like to believe there is a chink in the circle of life – an uneven join on the curve where the top of the genetic pool meets the bottom. This is the place from which flawed geniuses come, where my family, with its mix of the charmed and the damned, belong. Somewhere on this isolated ledge lies the answers to all the contradictions on earth.

* * *

A dozen people fill the room now, swapping goodwill and drinking coffee out of plastic cups. Attending AA is not unlike going to the theatre. You do it because it's supposed to be good for you – or more accurately, somebody else thinks it's good for you. Your parents, friends, people you don't want to hurt, have almost certainly bought tickets and you go to keep them happy. The theatre analogy doesn't end there. Once in a meeting, there are uncomfortable displays of emotions, an interval between speakers. There are the stars, producers, an audience and prima donnas to entertain them and, oh Good Lord, there's the fantastically pretty girl walking through the door ...

Her name is Kate. She touches the arm of someone she knows and nods. They give her a brochure, which she doesn't read. Today she's wearing a blue cotton shirt and pencil skirt. I like the way she moves in this skirt. Demure, yet ... not.

I watch Kate out of the corner of my eye, mentally staking my claim on the chair nearest her. Suddenly, without warning, it's time and the talking stops. I look for Kate but she's disappeared. Everyone sits. I cast around panicked, the mulish child who can't get the hang of musical chairs. There are two seats left, but not together. I'm on the verge of bolting when Kate pushes in through the swinging door from the loo. Her eyes are red from crying. Somewhere along the line, some bastard has been mean to her. I want to be that bastard so that I can make it up to her. She sits down and crosses her legs. There is a ladder in her tights. It starts 5 inches above her knee and disappears up her skirt – God only knows where it might end. Dear Lord she's sexy, I am intoxicated by her beauty, I am overwhelmed by her suffering. If I don't sleep with her soon I will go mad.

The meeting gets underway. Kate was on holiday last week. This I learn from her share: 'Lisbon. Good tapas. A chance to escape.' So far she's given no reason as to why she's slipped on the banana skin of rack and ruin. She flicks her black hair over one shoulder, her eyes are the colour of mulberries.

Who's next? I look around. Whose boil-in-the-bag emotions need reheating this week? Whose family must now carry the burden of their child's dysfunction on top of their own. It's tempting to leap to my feet. We've had them all, I could say, great granny kept a lion, Howard held poker parties dressed as a rat. Uncle Conrad drank himself to death, as did Uncle William. Robert took drugs. Dinah lay on her bed and swallowed pill after pill. Peter walked up to the top of the valley and put a gun to his head. John died of a brain tumour the size of a cantaloupe ... We're a careless family. We lose a lot of people. But I keep quiet, holding back for the real loonies and eventually Mad Millicent takes the chair. She has hair like a Brillo pad and believes herself to be Peter Mandelson's bodyguard. We're all a bit bored of her and she soon senses it. Eventually she falls silent then hauls a bottle of Evian water from her knapsack and stares at it incredulously.

Next we get Stan. 'It has come to my attention,' he begins, 'that certain people in this fellowship have been b'littlin' me,' he fixes his eye on Kate who hugs her knees to her chest. She has a fading bruise on her left calf, and intensely white skin through which her veins shine and flow like rivers on a map. 'Well,' Stan continues, 'I should like it known that I am carrying a long sharp knife and should anyone b'little me again, I'll stick 'em like a pig.' He wipes the spittle from his mouth. 'Fanks for listening.'

I have a brainwave. In the break I will ask Kate to be my sponsor. This means I can legitimately ring her up day or night to discuss my disintegration.

'I can't be your sponsor,' she says, eyes narrowing with suspicion.

'Why not?'

'It's crossing the boundaries. You don't even know me.'

'Ah but I don't know anybody here.' I turn my palms up to the ceiling, charming yet helpless.

'This isn't about sobriety,' she says quietly and furiously.

I'm floored that she's on to me so quickly. 'What is it about then?'

'It's about you wanting to sleep with me.'

I've completely gone off Kate now that she's got no sense of humour. If you can't even connect with people on a basic level, what hope is there for any of us here?

'I'll be your sponsor, mate.'

I turn to find a man the size of a small country accosting me.

'I've been sober for a year now,' he says, 'I'm ready to take you on.'

Raymond is black, schizophrenic and has spent most of his adult life in prison. It's going to be hard to say no.

I spend the second half of the meeting contemplating Raymond's neck. The thing must measure minimum a foot and a half circumference. In fact there's no way of deciphering where his neck ends and his head begins.

After the meeting he says, 'Call me anytime you need help,' and crushes me to his chest.

* * *

'You can't be on the bloody programme if you're drinking,' Benj says in the pub.

'I'm half on the programme. Half AA. I'm A.'

'That's like announcing you're half pregnant. There are certain things you just can't do in halves.' Benj, unshaved and apparently unwashed since the last time I saw him, is doing the crossword puzzle in the Telegraph, his third pint of bitter in front of him. When he takes a swig, his Adam's apple rises up and down in his throat like a miniature elevator. Rake thin, Benj looks like someone standing in front of a circus mirror, all extruded. I tear open a bag of crisps.

'The world is full of legitimate halves. Half dead, half decent, half- cooked. Half-witted ...' I'm having my first drink of the day. A glass of red wine. It tastes pure and delicious and, God knows, I feel like I've earned the thing.

'I don't know why you're bothering frankly.' Benj turns his attention to the obituaries.

I glance fondly at the miffed expression on his face. Benj and I are first cousins, and we've been muckers, drinking and otherwise, since we were at prep school together. He is not taking kindly to my partial desertion.

'Half-baked, halfway, half-cocked.' I scribble with alacrity. The piece for the Spectator is flowing.

'They say the moment you realize you're scared of living without alcohol means you are an alcoholic.' Benj says.

'Demi-tasse, demi-cappucine, demi-monde.' I throw down my pen. The piece is finished. I down the glass of wine to celebrate and order two more.

'Does Rory know you're demi-AA?' Benj enquires.

'Why? Am I not functioning magnificently on my new ration of alcohol? Am I not coping beautifully under such trying circumstances?'

'Uhuh,' he doesn't look up from the paper.

'Am I not achieving work deadlines, keeping appointments?'

'Speaking of which,' Benj says, 'weren't you meant to be having supper at home tonight?'

* * *

Bollocks. I scuttle off. Home, temporarily is chez Rory – not the most ideal of situations for either of us, but a couple of months ago I received one of those estate agent letters. Did I want to rent out my property to some wanker banker and his wife for an extortionate sum of money? If I remember correctly, the original thinking behind agreeing to this (apart from it paying off some frankly pressing, not to mention depressing debts) was that having calculated assignments abroad, weekends at home, and the rest of the time over at my rather obliging girlfriend's flat, I could probably wing it financially for a further six months. When my girlfriend threw both me and my clothes out, Rory seized his chance. I won't bore you with the details of our row but we ended up with a neat exchange of consonants for vowels. B&B from him in return for a commitment to AA from me. Rory, sobriety's bodyguard, has officially assigned himself to my case.

Metaphorically speaking, my little brother and I are twins. We might be separated by thirteen months but we're the head and tail of the same coin. What I lack, he boasts and vice versa, our weakness and strengths balancing each other out. More importantly I have always lived in his head and he in mine, and thus united we have managed to make sense of the world. But as I drift further over a river he will not cross, things have changed.

* * *

Rory doesn't dare be too stony-faced when I finally buzz the door because his fiancée's just arrived from Italy. The purpose of dinner is for us to bond. I suspect neither of them fall for the story I make up about Kate having a breakdown in the meeting but they're gracious enough to pretend, in fact they positively radiate welcome and for a moment I have to muster every ounce of loyalty not to turn tail and flee.

'Would you like to drink something?' Leona says, then blushing adds, 'a Coca Cola?' I grin and kiss her on the cheek.

Leona whips dishes in and out of the oven with strong honey-coloured arms. She's a beauty all right. Cool skin, pale hair, hot Italian blood. Too healthy looking for my taste, I prefer Kate's bruised vulnerability, but at one point I catch the look Rory sends her across the kitchen. I realize the bastard's actually in love and I feel enormously proud of him.

'Are you taking Leona to Hell Hall this weekend?' I ask.

'Over my dead body.' Rory pretends not to see my frown and I do not push it but here we come to the point of separation. Our paths have diverged and discussions about Hell Hall, about inheritance, matters of tax, our parents, their drinking, their hopelessness, my perceived hopelessness, are all places we no longer go together, emotionally, conversationally, and certainly not physically.

Rory believes he has escaped. Imagines it is possible. He has sworn not to be tied down, and of course, that's his prerogative – but it's also, I believe, his loss. It's different for me. Hell Hall, as our family home has come to be known, is one of the most beautiful places on earth, a place about which I'm passionate – which is just as well really as I cannot escape. I am the eldest son.

The rest of dinner passes pleasantly enough, I badly want a drink but there's just enough Coke to fill my glass, just enough perfunctory gossip to fill the gaps left by other forbidden subjects and by the time we finish it's mercifully late. When Rory takes Leona to bed, he steers her from the room with his thumb and forefinger round the back of her neck.

After an hour or two of television I doze. When I wake, edgy and twitching, it's somewhere between night and day. This has long been a moment of desperation for me. A bad sleeper as a child, irrationally scared of the dark, and now scared of the demons the dark allows me to conjure, I know from the moment my brain registers wakefulness that I will do almost anything for a drink ...

It takes me a while to find where Rory's stashed it but eventually I triumph with two bottles of wine from the depths of the cleaning cupboard, hidden on a shelf behind the Ajax and Domestos.

* * *

Later, opening the kitchen bin to throw out the empty bottles, I knock against the drainer. A pile of saucepans clatter to the floor. I stack them back on the sink.

'What's up?' Rory is standing in the doorway looking sleepy and crumpled.

I try to keep the alcohol from my voice when I answer, then I think damn him – why should I? We talk, but as so often these past few months it soon turns to argument and God knows I am weary of it. He tells me I am following tracks in the snow and I tell him I'm no fan of these father/ son style 'chats' because we've been so close all our lives and none of this ever mattered. As he lectures I close my eyes, strip back the years until I see two small boys, arms linked, dressed in woolly jumpers with embroidered initials. R and D. Now I look at him shaking his head angrily and I wonder what the hell happened to us. Two things occur to me. The first is that somewhere along the line, wires have been crossed. Rory seems to have responsibility whilst I have the responsibilities and the second is my fear that Rory is growing up whereas I am clearly regressing and I know then and there that I have to get out of the house before I either cry or end up clocking the little bastard.

* * *

As I'm unchaining the bike from the railings I remember that I meant to tell Rory he will not escape his roots, no matter how hard he tries. There is something of the father in every son. The gene might be dormant, but it's lying in wait. Then I recognize the fear and indecision in his eyes as he hesitates in the doorway and I see that he knows this already.


Excerpted from Hunting Unicorns by Bella Pollen. Copyright © 2003 Bella Pollen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bella Pollen is a writer and journalist who contributes to a wide variety of publications, including the Sunday Telegraph, Vogue, and the Observer. She is the author of two other novels, All About Men and B Movies, Blue Love. She lives in Ladbroke Grove, London.

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Hunting Unicorns 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kiss yye hand 3 times then repost this to three different books then look under yye pillow!!! It really works
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DW-22 More than 1 year ago
Lacking in depth, eloquence, and interest. A decent book for someone looking for a quick, unchallenging read. Sprinkled with witty humor and a splash of romance, but ultimately unmemorable.