An American writer is prompted by receipt of a mysterious package to reflect upon the pivotal moment of his life.
Thomas Nesbitt, a moderately successful travel writer and memoirist, administers the coup de grâce to his faltering marriage when, without his wife’s knowledge, he buys a cottage in Maine. He’s planning to live out his retirement in seclusion when a box arrives from overseas. The return address is that of Thomas’ one-time fiancée, Petra Dussmann. This catapults Thomas and the narrative into an extended flashback going back decades, to 1984, when he arrived in Berlin planning to write about life on both sides of the yet to be dismantled Wall. He moves into a flat sublet by a gay British painter with a heroin habit. Thomas seeks freelance assignments from a U.S.-backed radio station, where his first story is translated into German by Petra Dussmann, a refugee from East Berlin. The two fall effortlessly in love. Up to that point, this bulky novel lags a bit, but the action accelerates when Petra recounts her story. Married to Jurgen, a wunderkind playwright who is driven mad by government repression of his work, Petra has just given birth to son Johannes when Jurgen is arrested. Her own arrest and imprisonment follow: apparently her best friend has been a Stasi informer all along. Jurgen kills himself, Johannes is adopted by a Stasi-approved couple and Petra is traded to the West for some East German agents. As their love deepens Thomas offers to use his American privilege of entering East Berlin to procure some cherished memorabilia of Johannes. However, Petra hasn’t told Thomas everything, and what he doesn’t know will devastate them both. Kennedy’s work harkens back to an earlier era of big novels à la James Michener and Herman Wouk, which is perhaps why—regrettably—he is still more widely read abroad than in his native land.
Despite his rambling pace, Kennedy’s evocative prose makes the eventual spellbinding finish worth the trip.