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SHIPWRECK by Louis Begley

SHIPWRECK

By Louis Begley

Pub Date: Sept. 25th, 2003
ISBN: 1-4000-4098-1
Publisher: Knopf

A precious account of an American writer’s love affair with a young Frenchwoman.

John North is someone who has pretty much achieved everything he could hope for in life. Happily married to a renowned New York physician, John is a well-regarded novelist with plenty of money, an extensive circle of friends (in America and abroad), a nice apartment in Manhattan, and a weekend house in East Hampton. He’s sophisticated, respected, and serious—in other words, a stuffed shirt. And he knows it, too. In Paris to promote the French translation of one of his books, John is so overwhelmed by the burden of his persona that he accosts a perfect stranger in a café one night and proceeds to tell him the true story of his life. His rambling confession soon focuses on Lea Morini, a Parisian journalist and artist who interviewed him during another book tour. Young, exquisite, and emotionally ambiguous, Lea is the mistress of a prominent French banker and has several lovers besides. She soon adds John to her list, and the two proceed to carry on a now-and-then affair on both sides of the Atlantic that’s exciting for John but promises no great trauma at first. Eventually, however, Lea becomes more and more possessive of John, telephoning him constantly and making excuses to see him whenever she’s in the US. This becomes more than John wanted or hoped for, but his vanity (flattered by the admiration of a young beauty) won’t let him break away, and the course of their relations progresses inevitably to the point where catastrophe is inescapable. And once the crisis comes, and John survives it, he finds himself driven to confess.

Overworked to the point of caricature: Like Woody Allen, Begley (Mistler’s Exit, 1998, etc.) sets his scenes largely by dropping names (here a party at the New Yorker, there an appearance on Apostrophes), but his characters never become credible in their own right. The story ends up feeling stagy and faked.