How well do we really know those we love? And how far are we willing to go to deceive ourselves and others when it comes to matters of the heart? The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt poses these questions.
In the summer of 1940 American expats Pete, a successful car salesman, and his solitaire-obsessed wife Julia, are forced to leave their beloved home in war-torn Paris and seek safety back home in the States. While awaiting a ship in Lisbon, the last neutral port in Europe, they meet the wealthy and sybaritic couple Edward and Iris and sexual sparks quickly fly between the two men. While the plot is compelling, it is the beauty of the language, the fascinating (but not particularly likeable) characters, and the cinematic European setting of this short novel that really drew me in. Leavitt deftly creates page-turning tension through the increasingly careless affair between Pete and Edward and the surprising reactions of their wives. The reader knows this complicated deception can’t end well, but can’t seem to look away from the oncoming train wreck.
This novel called to mind a couple of other books that are similar in pacing, atmospheric historical settings, and complex characters. The first is Ian McEwan’s small masterpiece, On Chesil Beach, which features newlyweds in 1960s Britain whose sexual repression completely inhibits their ability to communicate, with disastrous results.
The second is The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer, set in 1950s San Francisco, in which a couple’s lives are turned upside down with the arrival of a stranger at the door—or is he a stranger? As in The Two Hotel Francforts, deception plays a pivotal role in the plot development.
For those of us who prefer Downton Abbey to American Horror Story and Anne Tyler to James Patterson, these three books prove that the intricacies of human relationships revealed through lyrical language can more than satisfy our cravings for suspense.