In Lisbon in 1940, two American couples meet up in the chaotic city as they join other exiles desperate to flee to the United States. The story is narrated by Pete Winters, one half of a middle-class expatriate couple fleeing their comfortable life in Paris:
The reader might have observed that to the conversation recorded above, my wife contributed not a word. I can assure you, however, that she was listening. I could tell by the way she ran her pearls through her fingers, like worry beads
Of all the ironclad arguments I had made against her staying in Europe, the one she had the hardest time refuting was that she was Jewish.
The Winters meet the Frelengs, Iris and Edward, bohemian sophisticates and independently wealthy, and their schnauzer, Daisy. Edward’s interest in him intoxicates Pete, who quickly adapts to a new and tantalising lifestyle while his wife languishes in their Lisbon accommodation. Iris Freleng befriends Julia, seemingly to protect her frailties but in reality covering up for much more.
As Pete becomes entangled in Edward’s fantasies and expectations, he looks at his own history and the story of his marriage. Behind her torpor Julia remains an enigmatic figure, much discussed in the novel, but barely through her own words or actions.
Edward circles around Pete and inveigles him into his world and the two begin a relationship. The time that they can have together is determined by Irene, who seeks to shelter Julia from the implications of the closeness of the two men. Pete gradually realises however that Irene and Edward have been down this path before, that he is one in a line of many, and that the Frelengs need him in order for their own relationship to thrive.
Pete is smitten and becomes quickly dependent on Edward, at which point the power switches in the relationship. Iris tries to gently advise Pete about how he should behave and to whom he owes his loyalties, but Pete is too obsessed to listen. He tells us the story of Julia and their courtship and their life together in Paris, but is too wrapped up in himself and his own obsessions to consider the impact of his own behaviour upon his wife.
Pete’s and Edward’s assignations, accompanied by Daisy, distract us from the real story, which explodes in the last chapters of the book, when Julia encounters her aunt Georgina, an important figure from her past, another exile, and seemingly the family black sheep. Julia flees the hotel lobby and runs to her room, rather than speak to Georgina.
From Georgina’s memoirs:
Much as I might wish the best for Alice, [Julia] I could not tolerate her … My mistake, I see now, was to think that she had the goods to lead the life I longed for her to lead – that exciting life of the aviatrix, the brave lady lawyer, the saloniste – when really, like her mother, she was mediocre through and through. In my own eagerness to nurture a young version of myself, I had given Alice more credit than she deserved.
Her aunt’s arrival in Lisbon finally spurs Julia out of her lethargy, and the consequences are shocking for both Pete and the reader. How can we have ignored Julia and her situation? Would this have happened if Pete had been paying more attention, rather than him being dismissive of his wife?
Julia’s actions now offer Pete redemption, an offer he seizes, and Leavitt ties the pieces up nicely in this well thought out and crafted novel of constraints, morals and behaviours, secrets and restraint. In this elegant and mannered novel Leavitt pushes forward themes of individual gratification and concerns against a backdrop of desperate times as thousands of refugees with Jewish background clamour to get on the ship that will take the Winters and the Frelengs back to the USA and to safety. I will not be the first person to think that Leavitt is the successor to E M Forster in style and themes; this could almost be Forster’s lost World War II novel.
David Leavitt The Two Hotel Francforts Bloomsbury 2013 PB 272pp $29.99