Photo credit: Luci Gutierrez – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/books/review/the-two-hotel-francforts-by-david-leavitt.html
David Leavitt’s newest novel, a New York Times notable book for 2013, is an absorbing read. I picked up the book last night, or rather I downloaded an electronic copy, and found much needed respite from the holiday crowds in its engrossing pages. After reading until I could no longer keep my eyes open last night, I woke up and finished off the last quarter of the novel this morning over an espresso – perhaps not unlike the bicas, a sort of Portuguese version of the drink, that the novel’s characters drink on Lisbon’s sun-soaked plazas and over whose consumption much of the novel unfolds.
The Two Hotel Francforts takes place in 1940, during the first summer of World War II. Salazar’s Lisbon is an unlikely safe haven for American and British expatriates on their way out of Europe, but more importantly, for European Jews escaping Nazi German-occupied lands. The Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, violated his orders and signed some 30,000 visas for Jewish refugees saving them from near certain death. Against this heavy backdrop, Leavitt crafts an exquisite tale about the improbable relationship that develops between Pete and Julia Winters and Edward and Iris Freleng. Both couples have fled France and are waiting for the Manhattan to take them to the safety of still neutral United States.
The improbable connection between the Winters and the Frelengs happens in the Café Suiça – a popular hangout on the city’s central square, the Rossio – when Pete drops his glasses and a “passing waiter, in his effort to keep his trayful of coffee cups from spilling, kicked the classes down the pavement, right into Edward Freleng’s path.” Pete’s loss of vision, his temporary blindness and subsequent reliance on others to guide him, at the expense of his relationship with his wife, is a theme Leavitt employs throughout the novel. After the incident the Freleng’s, who co-author mystery novels but who otherwise live a life of leisure, invite Pete and Julia to come to their table for a drink. Julia, already upset at being forced to leave their adopted home in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, begrudgingly leaves her solitaire games and is agitated further by the Freleng’s elderly dog, Daisy, licking her ankles. Over the course of this first conversation (and the narrator’s guidance) we learn that Julia comes from a wealthy German Jewish family in New York – hence his desire to get her out of Europe as fast as possible – and the Iris (a British citizen) and Edward, who could have gone to England earlier, are going to the States to avoid having to quarantine Daisy.
From this chance encounter the two seemingly happy couples are thrown into an emotional-sexual vortex that one among them, the slightly paranoid Julia, will not survive. Iris cajoles Julia into going to Daisy’s vet appointment with her, while Edward walks Pete back to his hotel, the Hotel Francfort. The Freleng’s are staying at the dodgier Francfort Hotel. “Just think, here we are fleeing the Germans, and we end up at a hotel called Francfort,” Edward observes. In the Winter’s hotel room Edward makes bawdy comments about Julia’s delicate undergarments hanging in the bathroom, contrasting her slim figure with Iris’s stopped posture, fuller frame, and schoolgirl underwear. For the first time, but certainly not the last, Edward is caught off guard by Edward’s forwardness. Pete notes that when Edward sits on Julia’s vanity seat “His legs were spread just wide enough that his trousers bunched at the crotch.”
That evening after the couples dine an off-the-beaten-path restaurant where Edward has inexplicably hardly established and friendly rapport with the owner, Pete and Edward take a drive to the resort town of Estoril, leaving their wives to retire to their respective hotels. This evening marks the true genesis of Pete and Edward’s passionate, violent, and, ultimately, destructive affair. Enamored by Edward’s ease at leading and enervated from being Julia’s constant support, before their first sexual encounter on the beach, Pete fit his “footprints in his [Edward’s], to that there would be only one set. Pete then took off his glasses, the blind love theme resurfacing, and swam toward Edward, who looked, tellingly, like he “might have been a rock or sea monster.” The next morning, Pete notes that, “For a man who is habituated to sleeping with women, the body of another man in always a bewilderment, not in its strangeness but in its familiarity – the strangeness of its familiarity.” Leavitt’s descriptions of Pete and Edward’s and Pete and Julia’s sexual encounters throughout the rest of the novel contain equally thoughtful insights.
As the affair heats up, Pete and Edward arrange to spend their afternoons together, meeting the wives for dinner. Brothels, empty fields and hidden corners host their private moments. The plot thickens when Pete reveals that Iris knows about the affair. Iris and Edward, who has frequent nervous attacks, have had a sexless marriage since the birth of their autistic daughter. Edward sends men he finds attractive to sleep with his wife so that he may fantasize about them afterwards. Iris, resigned to her fate, her self-imposed punishment for loving Edward so deeply, sternly warns Pete that Julia must not be allowed to become award of “the thing that will surely kill her.”
Passionate affairs are, by their very nature, limited by factors beyond the lovers’ control. Such is the case for Pete and Edward. Julia becomes suspicious that something, though she is unsure of what, has gone awry. Before the Manhattan is set to sail for New York she commits suicide. Free to finally spend an entire night together, Pete no longer wants to “spend a whole night with Edward, much less sleep in with him.” Pete, unaccustomed to the Freleng’s easy-come-easy-go lifestyle is ready to find something purposeful to do again. The last pages of the novel occur several years after the couples have split apart. The Freleng’s have divorced and Pete, the only character to have preserved himself in the aftermath of the Lisbon affair, disembarked at the last minute and stayed in Europe to help run a refugee smuggling route with a Unitarian Universalist doctor he met in his hotel lobby.
This is a fabulous, impossible-to-put-down novel. Anyone interested in historical novels, dangerous liaisons, Americans abroad novels, or contemporary novels that give frank portrayals of same-sex attraction during a period when it was much less accessible will find much to appreciate in The Two Hotel Francforts.
- The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
- The Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith
- Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
- The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt – review (theguardian.com)
- 100 Notable Books of 2013 (nytimes.com)