|The Two Hotel Francforts
3.5 / 5
"We met the Frelengs in Lisbon, at the Café Suiça."
It is the summer of 1940, and Lisbon, Portugal, is the only neutral port left in Europe—a city filled with spies, crowned heads, and refugees of every nationality, tipping back absinthe to while away the time until their escape. Awaiting safe passage to New York on the SS Manhattan, two couples meet: Pete and Julia Winters, expatriate Americans fleeing their sedate life in Paris; and Edward and Iris Freleng, sophisticated, independently wealthy, bohemian, and beset by the social and sexual anxieties of their class. As Portugal’s neutrality, and the world’s future, hang in the balance, the hidden threads in the lives of these four characters—Julia’s status as a Jew, Pete and Edward’s improbable affair, Iris’s increasingly desperate efforts to save her tenuous marriage—begin to come loose. This journey will change their lives irrevocably, as Europe sinks into war.
Gorgeously written, sexually and politically charged, David Leavitt’s long-awaited new novel is an extraordinary work.
I got this book as a Netgalley offering a while back, and had entirely forgotten how the little blurb described it. So I again went in cold, and I find I really enjoy those books about which I have very little expectation! The story centers around a couple of weeks relatively early in World War II, when residents from all over Europe were attempting to flee the continent and the Nazi persecution. Many ended up in Lisbon, as Portugal was neutral at the time, and there was a port where boats could bring people to America or several other far-flung parts of the globe. (Surprisingly, there was also a World's Fair happening there at the time, which I would have thought would have been postponed due to the growing conflict in nearby countries.)
Two couples meet accidentally while at a cafe, waiting on the boat to America to arrive. One of them is a couple of American expatriates who had vowed never to go back to the States after they had moved to Paris many years earlier. The other couple was a mystery-writing team, famous for their British novels written under a pseudonym. They meet due to an accident involving broken glasses, and begin their adventures together largely due to their both being bored out of their minds during this "holding pattern" they are forced into. The couples are particularly tired of their own partners, having traveled through very trying times (and many years before) with each other, so they pair off by gender and have themselves quite a bit of fun. For a while, anyway. The closer the date of the ship's arrival, the tenser things get, and things come to a head right around the time the ship is pulling into port. I don't want to give too much away, but this did recall to me a bit of The Great Gatsby, with its sparkling environs and the posh characters that all swirled around each other, privileged and bored and unhappy all in their own way (to brazenly misquote Tolstoy). There also definitely lurked something more sinister behind everyone's facade, and those secrets spilled out over the course of the book, culminating in a partly-surprising ending (it was, after all, hinted at right from the start!). What I found pleasantly surprising was that the part the reader thought would be the denouement of the novel ended up being passed over in a cursory manner, while the author then went on in the epilogue to explain pretty much all of the meat of all the characters' back-stories. Oddly done, but well done, I do think.