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The Two Hotel Francforts: A Novel Hardcover – October 15, 2013
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*Starred Review* With his first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes (1986), Leavitt claimed attention as a serious fiction writer, and the publication of his first collection of short stories, Family Dancing (1984), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, alerted readers that he was to be taken as a talented writer in the short form as well. Leavitt’s new novel establishes a brisk pace from page one, corresponding to the jittery atmosphere of the place and time in which it is set: the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, which, in the summer of 1940, is the only neutral port left in Europe. Refugees from the German takeover of most of the continent are gathered in Lisbon awaiting a chance to escape the war’s dangers. Leavitt focuses on two married couples as they pass the tense time until an American ship, the Manhattan, will arrive to carry them and other fortunate ticket-holders to the U.S. With one of the men narrating the novel’s events, recalling them from the distance of several years, we follow the couples as they wait for relief from the dangers closing in and, in the meantime, play their own game of intrigue, not on an international diplomatic level but on a personal and even more confounding level: the two wives having to deal with an affair that quickly ignites between their husbands. The result is a dramatic story that Leavitt weaves with compelling authority and empathy. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: The publicity campaign being accorded Leavitt’s new book will include book-club advertising, availability of group reading guides, an author tour, and national review coverage. --Brad Hooper
“Brave and risky... Leavitt is a fluent, clever writer... [with] page-turning craft.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“Set in the summer of 1940, The Two Hotel Francforts, David Leavitt's lean, stylish novel, unfurls like a classic Hollywood film, crackling with intrigue and illicit romance...[Leavitt] employs coolly elegant prose to evoke the era's glamour and dread... He transports the reader to a wayward world racked by historic upheavel and intimate demons.” ―O, the Oprah Magazine
“An intriguing tale of love and secrets…The Two Hotel Francforts cuts in two directions at once: It's a refugee story with something of the atmosphere of an Alan Furst novel, and at the same time it's the story of a brief but intense gay love affair… Leavitt handles complicated material with proficient craft.” ―Buffalo News
“Readers who crave... secrets and ambiguities in their fiction will be sated by David Leavitt's deft historical novel, The Two Hotel Francforts.” ―Wall Street Journal
“Leavitt is superb at comedy of manners, his dialogue is witty and tight and his characters constantly reveal themselves while trying to keep their true feelings hidden... Leavitt has never been in greater command of his talents... In is best work yet, Leavitt is a smart, literate American novelist in the British tradition of Iris Murdoch and E. M. Forster.” ―Shelf Awareness
“This is a brittle tale told with effortless ease.” ―Bookpage
“Leavitt brings to mind Edith Wharton and E.M. Forster, two novelists whose pointed observations about class sometimes belied their elegant prose...The Two Hotel Francforts stands with his very best work.” ―Lambda Literary Review
“[A] smart, well-crafted story... [A] clever, engaging tale of marriage's hidden shadows, lies, and half-truths.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Leavitt's new novel establishes a brisk pace from page... [It's] a dramatic story that Leavitt weaves with compelling authority and empathy.” ―Booklist, starred review
“Leavitt writes beautifully and fluently, his scenes studded with precise detail... Prove[s] Leavitt as much a master of clarity as he is of confusion.” ―Gay City News
“Brings to mind the classic film Casablanca... Told from different perspectives, this multilayered tale intrigues with its twists and turns of plot and viewpoint. Leavitt's graceful depiction of same-sex romance will have universal appeal. Highly recommended.” ―Library Journal
“An artfully crafted story of two marriages... Very fine work.” ―Kirkus
“We can always count on David Leavitt to bring buried desires to the surface and give the uncertainties of an era startling clarity in his fiction. Here in his glorious new novel, with his characters on the run from war and suspended in a precarious state of exile, he traces their efforts to create meaningful lives amidst the turmoil surrounding them. The result is a book that is artful, gripping, delicate, and fierce.” ―Joanna Scott, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of FOLLOW ME
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Top Customer Reviews
Two couples meet apparently by accident in the first pages: Pete and Julia Winters, and Edward and Iris Freleng. Pete, the narrator, is a former Buick salesman based in Paris. Edward and Iris live off inherited wealth and have a successful sideline as authors of detective novels. Iris is British, the other three American, though Julia has added anxieties being Jewish by birth. As often happens with chance friendships that people strike up abroad, there is something a little too rapid, too intense from the very beginning. Edward is one of those people who, after only three days in a strange city, acts like a native, and has already struck up favorite-customer relationships with the waiters in half a dozen cafes. Whether coming from him, or smoldering beneath the surface in the women, there is a powerful groundswell of sexuality, a wave waiting to break.
It should surprise no one who knows Leavitt's work that one component of this sexuality will turn out to be gay, and that he will treat it superbly. He is explicit but never gross. What rings so true is that the progress of the affair is not just a heterosexual courtship with altered chromosomes, but something distinctly different in psychology, pacing, and practice. Where I might expect to have been turned off, I was totally engaged by what was happening to the men, and appropriately disturbed by its effect on the women in the background. Although a one-act drama, lasting little more than a week, this becomes a potentially tragic scenario that must be played out to the very end.
To the very end, yes. But I was perplexed by how the author reached that end. The tension drops distinctly about three-quarters of the way through. In the very last section, Pete abandons straight storytelling and compiles a kind of scrapbook of details that show parts of the story in a significantly different light, but I felt (rather as I did with THE GREAT GATSBY) assaulted by too much exposition too late. I did like the very last chapter, though.
But what is it all about? Is it merely a tale of sexual enslavement in the manner of James Salter's A SPORT AND A PASTIME, or is it a political and historical novel after all? Are these four specimens incubated in the Petri dish of 1940 Lisbon perhaps representative of some larger sickness in Europe and America at the time? I would feel a little short-changed by the first, but not sure I wasn't reading things into it to make the second. In short, this was a thoroughly engaging and beautifully written book, but one without a clear point.
Pete and Julia Winters are Americans who have lived in Paris for over 15 years; Julia insisted on following her Parisian dream and never returning to America. She spent her idle days trying to write, but never got past reams of the first chapter. Pete is a fairly successful car salesman, who feels it is his duty to make Julia happy. Edward and Iris Frelang are wealthy itinerants and writers of a French detective series, written under a pseudonym.
The two couples meet at a café one evening, when Edward mistakenly steps on Pete's eyeglasses. One couple is staying at Hotel Francfort and the other at the Francfort Hotel--hence, the title. Although the novel focuses tightly on these two couples, it is also peopled with anxious characters either waiting for passage overseas or denied visas. This adds color and atmosphere of a world in flux and unmoored. Julia is a Jew, who understandably doesn't want to let it be known. However, her insecurities run much deeper than is at first evident, and beyond her Jewishness.
The restlessness of the Winters and Frelangs start to show early on, like a sleeping beast awakened, as the long claws of latent behaviors crack the surface and Edward and Pete begin an affair. Their attraction to each other is evident from the first, and perhaps in a different time, when the anxieties aren't so ubiquitous, this would not have occurred. At least, that is my assessment, or the reason that allows me to consider that their pairing is organic, and that who we are is flexible.
This is my first Leavitt novel, although THE INDIAN CLERK, a much fatter novel, sits on my shelf. Now, I look forward to it. Leavitt's prose is lean and assured, and he manages to surprise the reader with a few twists, especially toward the end, when it is understood that the craft of writing is an important subtext of Leavitt's work, or at least, has a talismanic presence. Or, perhaps, it is incidental to the recalibration of our sense of self--and those closest to us.
"It is really astounding to me, the human capacity for self-delusion, of which I myself am as guilty as anyone, and as much when what is at stake is something to be lost as something to be gained. And perhaps this is...a talent we must cultivate to survive--until the moment arrives when it kills us."
While the ennui of marriage under stressful circumstances (especially war) is an engaging topic, the details of the relationships - particularly between Edward and Iris - strain belief. Likewise, the sudden gay passion upon which the plot revolves pops up from nowhere without any previous intimation, and - after just a very unsatisfying week of rather unlikely fumbling - dissipates before the ship leaves harbor!
Most egregious of all, though: Leavitt's often clever first-person narrative is interrupted at least twice with extended passages in "other voices" that, while moving the dragging plot line forward, seem contrived and are disruptive to the reader.
As I say, disappointing!