MATTERS OF HONOR by Louis Begley


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The professional success and personal setbacks of a Harvard-educated, Polish-American Jew, as seen by his best friend.

Sam, Archie and Henry arrive at Harvard in the early 1950s; more than half this story describes their comfortable lives there. They are unlikely roommates: Sam and Archie, both Wasps, are intrigued by the exotic Henry, a Jew from Brooklyn with a Polish accent. He arrived in the U.S. with his parents in 1947, after years spent hiding from the Nazis. Though not the most proud Jew, he will acknowledge his Jewish identity, if asked. His brilliant progress at Harvard will be complicated by his pursuit of Margot, the beautiful stranger who had blown kisses at him on his arrival. Narrator Sam has just learned he was adopted at birth and is glad he has no biological links to the “cuckoo couple” who raised him. Curiously, the matter is then dropped. The ensuing lack of attention to Sam’s development throws the novel seriously out of whack (Archie was never more than a bit player). He becomes a successful novelist (just like that!), but stays single. Does he have a sex life? Who knows? The focus stays on Henry, and Henry’s on-again, off-again relationship with Margot, coupled with his attempts to avoid his over-protective, self-dramatizing mother. The story moves sluggishly forward on a tide of social engagements implicitly celebrating money and class. Though he never manages to corral Margot, Henry does very well for himself. As partner in a top New York law firm, he advises a fabulously rich Belgian count, “a bird of prey.” The two fall out over an intricate scheme to protect the Count’s bank, and Henry has a crisis of conscience over betrayal of his Jewish roots. The crisis would have been more convincing had the Count not fired him first.

Despite a suicide and a near-fatal beating, this is a generally anemic novel from Begley (Shipwreck, 2003, etc.).

Pub Date: Jan. 29th, 2007
ISBN: 0-307-26525-0
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2006


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