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The Two Hotel Francforts

Two unhappy married expat couples meet in World War II-era Portugal – a meeting that changes everything for all of them.

November 1, 2013

The Two Hotel Francforts, by David Leavitt, Bloomsbury USA, 272 pages

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By Heller McAlpin for The Barnes & Noble Review

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It's hard to imagine, now that marriage equality has become almost commonplace, but David Leavitt's short story "Territory," published in The New Yorker in 1982, was the first openly gay fiction in the magazine. A sensitive exploration of tensions that arise when 23-year-old Neil brings home his male lover for the first time, the story is tame by today's standards – or even in comparison to Leavitt's 1997 novella, "The Term Paper Artist," which was pulled from publication in Esquire over what the magazine's editor called "a taste question." But in its crossover appeal to gay and straight readers alike, it helped break down the ghettoization of gay fiction. Nowadays, it sometimes seems as if it's the rare novel that doesn't have at least one gay character.

The Two Hotel Francforts, Leavitt's eighth novel, has no openly gay characters, though it features a brief but torrid homosexual affair between what not so long ago could have been simply described as two unhappily married men but now needs to be clarified as two men in unhappy marriages with women. Set in Lisbon, Portugal, in June 1940, where hordes who have fled occupied France gather to await passage to safety, it offers a different sort of crossover appeal – to readers of both historical and domestic fiction.

Spanning just a few weeks and 250 pages, "The Two Hotel Francforts" is a stylish model of narrative compression and economy. Despite the escalating Nazi threat that forms its backdrop, its focus is alienation of affection rather than annihilation.

Pete Winters and Edward Freleng, American expatriates in their early 40s, meet cute at a popular café in Lisbon when Edward accidentally steps on Pete's eyeglasses – rendering him blind to what's coming. Both men are killing time with their wives while waiting for the SS Manhattan, which has been commandeered to retrieve Americans stranded by the war. Both are also staying in the Hotel Francfort – though, as it turns out, two different hotels that share the same name because they were formerly owned by feuding brothers. The novel is Pete's account of the fortnight or so that profoundly changes the two couple's lives.

Leavitt hooks us by the third page, with this sentence: "I should mention – I can mention, since Julia is dead now and cannot stop me – that my wife was Jewish, a fact that she preferred to keep under wraps." The same paragraph ends: "For she had sworn, when we had settled in Paris fifteen years before, that she would never go home again as long as she lived. Well, she never did."

Of course our minds flood with questions, which Leavitt deftly keeps in play until the end of the book: Why was she so loath to go home? How did she die? When? Killed by the Nazis? Destroyed by her husband's dalliance with another man? Suicide? Foul play? A staged, "apparent" suicide like the one in the detective novel that Edward and his wife, Iris, are writing under their pen name, Xavier Legrand?

Julia, as described by her admittedly disenchanted husband, is not a character we're sad to see go. Upset about having to leave their elegant Paris apartment – featured in a copy of Vogue that has become dog-eared from her constant thumbing – she is "too worried about what we were losing to care about those who were losing more." This is a woman who spent her days shopping or playing a version of solitaire called, aptly enough, Beleaguered Castle.

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