The Two Hotel Francforts
Leavitt’s most recent success (after The Lost Language of Cranes, 2011) takes readers to Lisbon early in World War II. In a way, this is familiar territory. It is Rick and Ilsa’s Casablanca, the last neutral port in Europe, a city teeming with refugees – royalty, spies, Jews, expatriates – all fleeing encroaching Nazism. Expat Americans, Julia, who is Jewish, and Pete, our narrator, abandon their home in Paris just as the Germans march in. They have a decent hotel room in Lisbon and passage on a ship that will take them where Julia swore she would never go – home. Iris, an Englishwoman, her Jewish husband Edward, and dog Daisy, also escape from France. A little less comfortable in a different hotel, awaiting the same ship, they are well traveled, worldly, and not terribly close to each other.
The four meet when Pete drops his eyeglasses and Edward steps on them. Edward insists on leading the myopic Pete back to his room for his other pair where – this is a new experience for Pete – there is mutual attraction. The men meet again, and again, neglecting their wives. Julia, who seems oblivious to the men’s liaisons, plays game after game of Patience. Iris cossets Daisy, apparently unconcerned. The four dine and sightsee together, killing time, while waiting for the ship.
“We were all double agents,” Pete says, as we witness the collapse of an ego, the dissolution of a marriage, and, worst, the loss of a soul. The story may have loose ends, unanswered questions, and improbable coincidences, as Pete suggests, but readers may understand far more than Pete does by the end. Highly recommended.