So here we have a trio of novels by American men, each attempting to establish a beachhead on the blasted and heavily fortified landscape of love and romance. The most sophisticated of these three efforts is David Leavitt’s The Two Hotel Francforts (Bloomsbury, $25), a deftly executed piece of literary historical fiction. In neutral Lisbon in 1940, two expatriate couples find themselves awaiting passage to America among a cauldron of desperate refugees fleeing the Nazi advance. This marvelously dramatic setting — Casablanca by way of Graham Greene — is the backdrop for a story related in retrospect by Pete Winters. He’s an earnest Midwestern auto salesman who at first believes that “most people are exactly what they appear to be,” but the novel’s dramatic arc will trace his education and eventual disillusionment. The progressively sinister web of deceit and manipulation that Leavitt constructs echoes Henry James’s intricate tales of Americans undone abroad. Pete has something of Lambert Strether’s willful obliviousness, but without, in the end, an equivalent moral grandeur or psychological acuity. There’s something essentially cautious in Leavitt’s tale; he seems content to paint in small, muted colors, and the sudden violence of the denouement seems almost like it dropped in from some other novel.
Leavitt’s command of his craft stands in sharp contrast to Charles Blackstone, whose first novel, Vintage Attraction (Pegasus, $24.95), is a slapdash, irritating affair. Blackstone’s protagonist is Peter Hapworth, a feckless adjunct professor of creative writing who engages in a whirlwind courtship of and marriage to Izzy Conway, a glamorous sommelier and television personality. One doesn’t expect this kind of fanciful romp to hew to cast-iron realism, of course, but the relationship between the two is so improbable and ill-defined as to defy credulity; both of them seem like woolly-headed, devious creeps. At one point, Hapworth casually does something so breathtakingly underhanded that I kept waiting — fruitlessly, it turned out — for the consequences to circle back and undo him, thus restoring at least a semblance of moral equipoise to the story. Hapworth has fun mocking the inanities of creative-writing truisms, but Blackstone’s own prose sounds like it was written with a thesaurus close at hand. He is especially fond of ungainly metaphors, e.g., “Her forehead became a noteless staff” indicates a frown. Elsewhere, a couple’s “limbs lay like battered, cast-aside merchandise that remained after the Christmas shopping stampede.” Save your receipt.
Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances (Knopf, $25.95), inspires the kind of wonder and elation one feels in the hands of a gifted writer. This beautifully wrought book, Yarbrough’s ninth, concerns Kristin and Cal Stevens, a middle-aged California couple who alight in a small town in Massachusetts. Their new neighbor, Matt Drinnan, is a sensitive but troubled local who “lately . . . felt insubstantial, weightless, as if he were merely the idea of a person rather than the real thing.” The story tracks the Stevenses’ halting assimilation into a world that feels foreign and brittle, and it is so keenly observed that its depiction of these three lost souls conveys outsize emotional force. Yarbrough captures the way these characters talk and think with a clear-eyed hardness. These are people who are too old and damaged for starry romanticism. The affair that develops between Kristin and Matt is so full of yearning and reluctant vulnerability that when they stumble into a fleeting happiness, you find yourself trembling with apprehension. There’s a lovely, erotically charged moment when Kristin disrobes in front of the younger Matt, saying shyly but defiantly, “What do you think. . . ? I would guess this is the first time you’ve ever seen a fifty-year-old woman naked.” The scene that follows is almost unbearably awkward and tender. The brilliance of this quiet, subtle novel, with its profoundly unglamorous characters, stems from how it turns a light on the kind of lives that so often go unremarked, suffusing them with compassion, empathy and rare beauty.
Lindgren is a writer and musician who divides his time between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.