Using history as the backdrop, David Leavitt’s newest novel The Two Hotel Francforts tells the story of two couples’ chance meeting in Portugal in 1940, on the eve of World War II. Lisbon remains as the last neutral port, as Germany sweeps Europe and more and more countries fall to the Nazis. Pete and Julia Winters, expatriate Americans, have abandoned their Parisian apartment, where they’ve lived a sedate life for the past years. They meet Edward and Iris Freleng, a sophisticated, independently wealthy writing duo at the Cafe Suiça, while, waiting for an American ship to bring them home. The Frelengs can’t return to their native England as their ancient terrier Daisy will be quarantined for 6 months and they fear she wouldn’t survive.
The couples seem caught in a bubble. Life goes on like normal, with complaints about hotel rooms and waitstaff service, appearing at the right places, spotting celebrities. Yet they encounter people trying in vain to get visas to anywhere but there. They only see other well-off refugees and it takes Iris to remind them of the plight of the Jews and less fortunate people for them to feel any sympathy. From the beginning of the story, as Pete narrates with some foreshadowing, the reader realizes that his marriage with Julia might not be all that it appears. In fact, much of the book revolves around the idea that you can’t take anything at face value. That woman sitting next to you in the cafe with all of the jewelry? That’s all she has left in the world. Pete spends a lot of time catering to Julia’s ever-changing moods, as she careens from games of solitaire to rants about her family.
Pete finds respite from the isolation of his marriage and the flight from Paris in the arms of Edward. It happens quickly on a beach overnight away from their wives. The two spend many pages trying to find places to be alone, some hours in a room rented from a brothel, others in Pete’s car on country roads. How long can this go on? It turns out that Edward and Iris’s marriage is also somewhat of a sham, as Iris tells it to Pete soon after he and Edward get together. They no longer share the marital bed–Edward finds men for her to sleep with rather, something she’s not thrilled about, but will do in order to keep him happy. Seems that Edward has spent some time in a hospital every now and then due to mood swings and depression.
Meanwhile, Iris, Edward, and Pete share in this secret, but poor Julia remains in the dark. It’s at this point you realize that only a week or so has gone by. How has all of this happened in such a short period of time? As Pete learns more about Edward and his marriage, the ardor begins to fail. Pete is writing his story down years later, and adds in pieces of the puzzle that he only learns after the fact. There’s a huge plot twist at the end, one that I didn’t foresee, but that throws everything off balance and reminds you once again, that things are always as they seem, character-wise and plot-wise. Leavitt creates such a rich atmosphere that it blinds you to this. He masterfully wrote an unconventional social comedy that becomes a more realistic and honest story, one that sublimely shows that you never take anything at face value.