Poet and novelist Reeve (Robert Frost in Russia, 2001) offers a knotty, self-consciously literary narrative about two sisters, one a London painter, the other an academic living in Paris, who eventually transform themselves in New York.
After a childhood spent living with Aunt Margaret in Evanston, Ill., the girls went their separate ways and have not seen each other since. In Paris, Christine DeKalb is a Rousseau scholar who has married a hot-shot American venture capitalist, Mark, and has an eight-year-old, thoroughly Frenchified son, Nicholas. Jan Sawyer, a recovered drug addict whose painting is just beginning to take off and earn money, lives in a Camden Town squat with her funny, lovable boyfriend, guitarist Tom Henderson. In alternate chapters, Reeve records the lives of the sisters, which move in a parallel direction, then gradually intersect, at the urging of Aunt Margaret, in a Christmas card. Christine’s situation is more dire, as she confesses to her sister when they meet in London: Unhappy with the fashionable social rounds her arrogant husband secures through his Common-Market ties, Christine is having an affair with a Norwegian composer and filmmaker. Moreover, Christine has discovered that Mark’s business éminence grise, Ron Harmon, has actually sponsored her academic position without her knowledge, thus exposing her husband as a Machiavellian opportunist. To further test the sisters’ maturity, Jan is offered a commission she can’t refuse: to come to New York and paint self-congratulatory portraits of Harmon, Mark and the influential hostess and socialite niece from whom the men derive their power. Reeve’s story is a kind of cultural patchwork among the three cities (the scenes of New York are most unconvincing). The dialogue is a sophisticated prattle featuring pretentious quotes from Bartlett’s, and there’s plenty of corny national stereotyping—Nadine the French housekeeper, for instance, bakes tarts all day.
This tale of three cities loses cohesiveness amid all the globetrotting.