Clare Moorhouse has one day to throw together a dinner party that could be the making of her husband's career in Anne Korkeakivi's first novel The Unexpected Guest.
The high-ranking British diplomat, currently posted to Paris, has his sights set on the top spot in Dublin. Kyrgyzstan, however, is a possibility. As she shops for spring asparagus and Irish cheddar, deals with selecting the flowers and placates her temperamental cook, Mathilde, Clare has a few other things on her mind. Her youngest son called to say he was in big, as yet unnamed, trouble at boarding school; Clare may have been the last person to see a suspected terrorist wanted by French police; and she keeps seeing the face of her dead lover all over Paris.
Plus, there's the fact that Clare hasn't set foot in Ireland for 20 years after a youthful brush with the I.R.A. For her, Kyrgyzstan might, in fact, be a safer option.
“An Unexpected Guest” consciously evokes Virginia Woolf's “Mrs. Dalloway,” as Clare maintains a serene exterior while planning her dinner party. Like “Mrs. Dalloway,” the novel takes place over the course of one day, and of course, Clare chooses the flowers herself.
Clare's serenity is only on the surface, though, as she dithers over the important things while expertly planning the party. She forgets to call her son's school, but is careful not to pen the place cards too early, so that she doesn't waste card stock if case the guest list changes. (The economics of diplomacy: priding oneself on saving $5 in paper while making sure there are at least 25 choices of whiskey for the dinner is one of many nice touches throughout the novel.)
Clare has cultivated a “beige cashmere” persona for 20 years, and the resurgence of her non-ecru youth takes its toll.
“Her determination to make this dinner right had started to feel almost religious, like an act of penance,” she thinks.
Korkeakivi is especially good on the life of an expatriate, such as when Clare notes that the grocery stores at each of their postings reflected the identity of the place: “In D.C., she'd frequented a Safeway where even the uncut melons had been wrapped in plastic, as remote as the smiles on the other women shoppers' faces...”
Clare herself can be a little frustrating as a character. Her obtuseness regarding her youngest, favorite son (as well as her determination to make sure his dad doesn't find out about his shenanigans, whatever they may be) made me want to shake her. But “An Unexpected Guest” is a quietly intelligent novel about a woman who, at long last, learns to be honest with herself.