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.
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Pete, who we're supposed to believe is a car salesman originally from Indianapolis, ignored every warning signal about Julia "until a morning came when I woke and found that the burden of her care was crushing the life out of me." Yet he still feels duty-bound to protect her and is convinced that the prudent path, considering her Jewish heritage, is to ignore her "Over my dead body" objections and insist they leave Europe while they can. By the time he learns the reason for her recalcitrance, it is too late.Skip to next paragraph
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If the Winters' marriage is a bad deal for Pete, the Frelengs' is even worse for Iris – though at least they appreciate each other intellectually and share a devotion to their aged terrier, Daisy. Iris, a long-necked and awkwardly tall British Raj orphan, met Edward while he was studying philosophy at Cambridge University – before he was thrown out for flouting the rules. Since leaving their "feeble-minded" daughter in a California institution near Edward's mother (who rescues her), they've spent the past 18 years flitting around Europe on Iris's inheritance. Their peripatetic existence is broken up by occasional rest cures, where the alternately dazzling and despondent (and seemingly bipolar) Edward can recover from his periodic suicidal "episodes." Their popular Xavier Legrand whodunits, including the significantly titled "The Noble Way Out," came about as a diversion during these recuperative interludes. Their marriage is sexless – unless you count their creepy arrangement, in which Iris sleeps with the men Edward craves but sends her way. Pete, both Frelengs tell him, was earmarked for Iris, but – something happened.
Leavitt's novel has some of the snap of a comedy of manners and the hard-boiled moodiness of "Casablanca." With Noël Coward's "World Weary" playing in the background, Edward and Pete drink absinthe at the Estoril casino, brush knees under the table, and discuss "this weird vitality, this sense that you can do things you wouldn't normally let yourself do" that accompanies the fear, panic, and uprootedness of wartime.
Leavitt has written of sex between men as "really a matter of exorcism, the expulsion of bedeviling lusts," and this holds true for the intense but quickly passing physical communion in "The Two Hotel Francforts." As Pete and Edward search for privacy in a city teeming with spies and refugees, Lisbon becomes a party to their affair. After taking refuge on the Bica Elevator, which scales the city's steep cliffs, Pete comments, in a sentence that could well spark a book group discussion: "Now it occurs to me that marriage itself is a kind of funicular, the regular operation of which it is the duty of certain spouses not just to oversee but to power."
Leavitt first ventured into historical fiction in 1993 with his third novel, "While England Sleeps," a homosexual love story set in 1930s England and Spain. It caused an uproar – and necessitated a revised edition – because of its unauthorized debt to Stephen Spender's 1951 memoir, "World Within World." After several books in the more contemporary vein of his earlier work, his most recent novel, "The Indian Clerk" (2007), blended fact and fiction to explore the relationship between two great early-twentieth-century mathematicians, one of whom he characterizes as a closeted gay man, the other his Indian protégé.
Despite its wartime setting and its concern with issues of guilt and responsibility, "The Two Hotel Francforts" offers a bouncier read than Leavitt's previous novels, with an especially satisfying, almost jaunty ending. A book group might want to start by considering how Leavitt uses historical fiction not just to illuminate the past but to shed light on contemporary issues – including how different are the options for men like Edward today.
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.