A woman leaves her husband in London for a younger man in Paris, where the affair takes unusual turns thanks to a conniving fellow the lovers befriend in this ambitious 1936 novel.
Stead was championed by Randall Jarrell in 1965 and Jonathan Franzen in 2010, both fans of her perennially neglected masterwork, The Man Who Loved Children (1940). The present volume is part of a reissue of some of her other fiction by a publisher from her native Australia. Elvira Western is around 30 in March 1934 when she finds herself on a train from Calais to Paris and engaging in clever chat with a lace buyer named Annibale Marpurgo. Deboarding in Paris, Elvira introduces Marpurgo to her lover, a 25-year-old British student named Oliver Fenton who dabbles in the radical politics that have Europe buzzing at the time. The couple bickers, he philanders, she thinks of the enticing comforts of life with her doctor-husband, and Marpurgo constantly intrudes. Theirs would be a garden-variety liaison if not for Stead’s psychological insights and Marpurgo’s machinations, which together give the affair a complexity much like the lace that weaves through the novel as subtheme and symbol. Stead paints an enticing, kinetic picture of Parisian cafe life and rented lodgings, friendly prostitutes and dissipated journalists, a sort of update of A Moveable Feast spiced with the rising threat of fascism. She also shows the influence, as the helpful introduction notes, of Joyce’s Ulysses, with a resourceful lexicon and wordplay, stream of consciousness and bravura passages that stand out from her conventional prose the way Marpurgo’s evil overshadows the small sins of adultery.
A welcome reissue of an intriguing, atmospherically rich work.