This novel covers four generations of the Alden family from the Civil War through the 20th century. It opens in 1965, when Peter is a student at the prep school founded by his prominent New England family. Here he begins his decades-long search to learn about the father he never knew. In 1953 Peter’s father disappeared into communist East Berlin and was never seen again. The story moves between Peter’s great grandfather, a Civil War hero; his grandfather, a doctor in WWI; his father, a renowned archaeologist who served in WWII as an OSS agent, then a CIA agent; and Peter, whose search lasts into the 1990s. Through his father’s colleagues, acquaintances, writings, letters, diary entries, Stasi files, and newspaper clippings, Peter pieces together who his father was, and his fate. He uncovers family secrets, lies, betrayals, spy scandals, and illicit love affairs.
This is a literary page-turner with many philosophical themes running throughout. The narrative is nonlinear, with details revealed in pieces as the reader is brought back and forth in time and place: the Berkshires, Vienna, Prague, Greece, London, Vietnam. It is a challenging read to pull all the scattered pieces together into a cohesive story, and I feel I lost some while wading through the volume of detail. The writing is outstanding yet overburdened with too much flowery description that does little to move the story along: “…the templed slopes beribboned with streamers of amethyst light, the lichen-spangled marble of the ancient sanctuaries showing in silvery blue planes of cubist jottings, while the walls and stony contours of the ancient town began to merge as one moiré stain on the twilight.” Despite these drawbacks, I enjoyed the book. It is a worthwhile read for anyone who loves to lose themselves in a big book and willing to make the investment in time and effort.