In June 1940, a ten-year-old Jewish boy from Antwerp arrives alone at the Hotel Palácio Estoril outside Lisbon. Gaby, short for Gavrihel, brings a suitcase of cash, insatiable curiosity, and the unshakable belief that his parents will soon join him. While he waits, he attends school, but his real education occurs within the hotel. A series of vignettes introduces Gaby to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the former King Carol of Romania, and various spies, including Ian Fleming.
But Gaby fades into the background, reappearing when convenient. You never see how he copes, over time, with the increasing likelihood that his parents won’t come, the compelling question that begins the book. That makes him a device (if not a cultural appropriation), but few other characters show depth, either, and the narrative seldom rises above a pastiche of anecdotes. Many focus on Dušan Popov, a Serbian double agent whose spycraft wakes up the story, but he’s a male fantasy with an inexplicable knack for sexual conquest. And in this narrative, women are “girls,” who, if they lack beauty, had better justify their presence, as with the secretary who’s “homely but sensitive.”
The crudeness extends to the portrayal of Jews. Gaby belongs to the highly observant Hasidic sect, yet he rarely does or thinks anything to mark him as Jewish. If that’s merely clumsy authorship, there’s no mistaking the anti-Semitic tropes. All Jewish characters are “difficult,” rich, and clever at business, young Gaby included. His brethren mourn lost fortunes but not people; in fact, the Holocaust is never mentioned.
But bigotry and boorishness aren’t the only problems with Estoril, whose shallowness and haphazard storytelling will likely please few readers of historical fiction, fewer of literary tastes.