Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book Review: "The Two Hotel Francforts" by David Leavitt

There comes a moment when your life changes. For Pete Winters that moment came when Edward Freling stepped on his glasses in a crowded cafe in Lisbon, Portugal. It's 1940 and the world is a chaotic place, with Hitler making his way across Europe. Lisbon is the only neutral port left, and refugees from all over Europe have crowded into Portugal, hoping for sanctuary or at least a place to wait until finding passage somewhere else.

Pete and his wife, Julia, are expatriate Americans forced to leave their longtime home in Paris when the city was occupied. They've been staying in Lisbon, although expected to sail back to the U.S., much to Julia's chagrin. The thought of having to return to America has completely unsettled her, as she had vowed to her estranged family she'd never leave Europe, but the fact that she's Jewish (a reality she understandably doesn't make public) complicates their ability to go anywhere else.

Edward and his wife, Iris, are independently wealthy writers, who have lived nearly all over the world. They, too, are headed back to the U.S. on the same ship as Pete and Julia. They are free spirits, loose where the Winters' are uptight, although they are not without their share of challenges.

The two couples find themselves continually thrown together, spending their days in cafes and sightseeing, their nights drinking. Julia would rather play solitaire and brood by herself, lamenting that she will have to leave Portugal. Pete and Edward, much to their surprise, begin a torrid affair. Pete finds himself quickly falling in love with Edward, imagining a life spent together. But while Edward, too, feels very strongly for Pete, his life and his marriage are far more complicated. Iris will do anything to keep her marriage intact.

"Because there are occasions when none of the choices are good. You simply have to calculate which is the least bad."

It's been said that certain things happen in wartime that wouldn't happen at other times. The same is true for the period leading up to war. People find themselves acting differently, thinking differently, making decisions they wouldn't otherwise make. But are those decisions, those feelings true, or just borne by circumstance? The Two Hotel Francforts is an introspective novel about relationships, about things said and unsaid, how you never can truly know what a person is thinking or feeling, or what secrets they've kept hidden, and how those secrets are affecting them.

I've always been a fan of David Leavitt's writing since I first read The Lost Language of Cranes years ago. He creates such vivid characters you can practically see with your own eyes, or imagine coming into contact with them in your daily life. His storytelling ability is on fine display in this book, which is at times passionate and moving, at times contemplative.

I enjoyed The Two Hotel Francforts but it left me with more questions than answers, particularly around Pete and Edward's relationship. I couldn't figure out if this was a whim for Pete or something he truly felt. I also found the way the plot was tied up rather confusing, as an incident pretty crucial to the whole story was told more in passing than anything else, and I was confused and frustrated by that.

In the end, this is a book that has several love stories tied together, as it explores secrets, dreams, fears, and frustrations. While it's not a perfect book, it's well written and compelling, and I'm glad to see David Leavitt back in the world of fiction again.

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