THE TWO HOTEL FRANCFORTS
Author: David Leavitt
Review: Monique Mulligan
Double lives and hidden histories are at the root of David Leavitt’s unconventional novel, The Two Hotel Francforts. Beautiful writing and an atmosphere charged with political unrest and sexual repression combine for an absorbing read that left me wanting more from this author.
The novel examines two unconventional marriages during a short period of limbo in Lisbon, Portugal when the two couples await safe passage to New York. It’s 1940 and Lisbon is the only neutral port left in Europe and the couples are among many trying to leave Europe for safer shores; in the meantime, they eat, drink and sleep in a city with two Hotel Francforts, throwing back absinthe and reconciling themselves with an uncertain future. Pete and Julia Winters, American expats who have fled Paris, appear to have a marriage based on tolerance and making Julia happy; high-strung and demanding, Julia does not want to return to New York and Pete spends his days humouring and placating her while she slaps her solitaire cards onto any flat surface, gradually realising her needs are ‘crushing the life out of him’. Writer duo Edward and Iris, with their little dog Daisy, have ‘lived all over the place’ and are, at least for Pete, a refreshing change. The couples become inseparable, meeting first for dinner and then for daily excursions in which the husbands pair up, leaving the wives to amuse themselves. For Julia, this is an ordeal; for Iris, there’s more at stake, as she watches an affair between Pete and Edward develop.
Narrated by Pete some years later, the novel has a contemplative feel overall. Little comments are thrown in early, hinting that all will not end well: ‘Well, it is too late for her to lord that over me now’. The narrative is full of double-edged dialogue that prompts further contemplation: ‘And I’ll bet he’s never led a double life. Am I right, Pete?’ The unusual ending uses five chapters and a variety of techniques; it veers from avoidance (quoting large blocks from a novel and a memoir to show what happened to his marriage to Julia in the end), to contemplative (looking over an old article, photographs and letters), to matter-of-fact to before returning to contemplative as Pete sits in a hotel room and tells the reader ‘I swear I could see everything that happened next’.
The war is used more as a backdrop – it is the ‘facts (that) got in the way’ of the story, that is, the smaller story of the Winters and Frelangs; it is the reason the couples are all together, the reason they have to leave Europe and, as Pete states later, something that tears stories into shreds (war leaves many unanswered questions, or ‘loose plot threads’), and their stories were no different. In the same way, Julia’s Jewish roots are treated as incidental – it could have been a driving force behind the Winters’ leaving Paris, but if that’s the case, it’s inferred rather than dwelt upon. War means repression (and oppression), but Leavitt again allows this to be implied, or understood, and draws out the theme through the characters and their marriages – Julia is trapped by guilt and becoming consumed by depression; Pete feels crushed and trapped by Julia; Edward subdues his sexuality due to social constraints; and Iris sacrifices her self-respect to Edward’s behaviour and weakness because she loves him. Each one manipulates in different ways as a reaction to feeling repressed.
A beautiful, strange and clever novel, one I will no doubt gain more from upon a second reading. Recommended for lovers of literary fiction. It’s available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ.
Bookish treat: Portuguese custard tart and coffee, anyone?