David Leavitt's The Two Hotel Francforts takes place in the summer of 1940, as Americans desperately crowd into Lisbon hotels waiting for the SS Manhattan to rescue them from war-torn Europe. Julia Winters, forced to abandon her dream flat in Paris, loathes the prospect of returning to the U.S. Furiously playing endless games of solitaire, she's delicate, unhappy and in denial about being Jewish. Gullible, well-intentioned Pete Winters, her devoted husband, head of the Buick sales division in France, who has never spent a single night away from his wife, is sincerely trying to tell the story of what happened.
When pigeons swoop low over their café table, Pete ducks, accidentally knocking Julia's playing cards off the table. When he bends to get them, his glasses fall off, and a passing waiter kicks them into the path of charming, attractive Edward Freleng. Wealthy, green-eyed Edward, who has never had to work in his life, is completely dominated by his tall, red-haired wife, Iris, who drives and sails and rides, and intends to hang onto her husband at all costs.
The couples discover they are staying in different hotels with, in essence, the same name, the Hotel Francfort and the Francfort Hotel. On the spur of the moment, the women retire and the men decide to take a spin in Pete's car. Suddenly, Pete and Edward are on a madcap nighttime journey, where they both try absinthe and plunge naked into the sea, changing all of their lives forever.
Leavitt is superb at comedy of manners, his dialogue is witty and tight and his characters constantly reveal themselves while trying to keep their true feelings hidden. But the mischievous, giddy social comedy of the novel's romantic first section becomes progressively more realistic, as vacation romances do.
This tale told by a car salesman of the week that changed his life is scrupulously honest, and Leavitt has never been in greater command of his talents: the genius of the set-ups, the pay-offs that generate more pay-offs, the luminous and perceptive language, the sensuous evocation of Lisbon, the re-creation of the sheer uncertainty in the face of Hitler's relentless advance. In his best work yet, Leavitt is a smart, literate American novelist in the British tradition of Iris Murdoch and E. M. Forster. The Two Hotel Francforts is a story where every sentence counts, human beings are only allowed partial truths and morality matters. --Nick DiMartino
Shelf Talker: A gripping dark comedy of manners set in 1940s Lisbon, in which two couples become entangled in each other's secrets while awaiting evacuation back to the U.S.