My rating: 4 of 5 stars
No one mixes historical fiction with homosexual love and eroticism quite like David Leavitt. This one, set in Lisbon in 1940, tells the story of two married couples trying to get to America as the Nazis take over more and more of Europe.
Pete, the narrator, is an American car salesman who has been living in France with his neurotic wife Julia, who has a horror of leaving Europe in spite of the fact that she, a Jew, is most at risk. They argue about whether they will leave on the ship they have tickets for or wait out the war in Lisbon and return to their lovely Parisian apartment (she often mentions that it was on the cover of Vogue).
Edward and Iris are a seemingly happier couple they meet up with. Edward is American and Iris English and, together, they are successful mystery writers. Pete seduces Edward and they embark on a passionate affair conducted in afternoon outings while their wives shop or visit tourist attractions.
Their feelings for each other are intense and threaten both marriages, but there are mysteries here, too. Do the wives know what's going on? Did Edward and Iris plan this together? Have they used other men like this? Why does Julia not want to go back to New York? What secrets might be revealed if she does?
The personal drama unfolds with the back drop of world wide drama, which we see in snippets. Some of the people they meet got their visas from Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese diplomat who defied orders to save Jews and others fleeing Germany. Edward and Pete have trouble finding places to have sex, with every hotel room filled with refugees. The difficulty of getting out of Portugal and to the United States if you are not an American or married to one is often seen in the minor characters.
The plot echoes that of Casablanca in ways that I assume are not coincidental. Stuck in place in World War II with many trying to escape, illicit lovers need to decide whether or not they are leaving together or whether the problems of four little people "don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." Will Pete do the noble thing and take care of his damaged wife? Will Edward want him to?
I found the ending (which I won't spoil here) to be the weak point of the novel. It felt both contrived and rushed, as if the author had grown tired of writing the book and just wanted to finish it. All in all, though, a compelling and thought-provoking read.
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