Nemer’s debut novel unfolds against the backdrop of the world wars and 1950s Europe.
An American couple decides to spend a year living in Brussels in 1958. Ben plans on doing scientific research at a university lab, while his wife, Charlotte, will be continuing her art studies. A slight mix-up on their first day in town brings them to the doorstep of a local figure known as the Countess, who becomes fast friends with the pair. Ostensibly, everything is fine with Ben and Charlotte’s marriage, but surgery has left Charlotte with the inability to have children. The issue, lurking just below the surface, is a touchy one for the couple. Charlotte’s regular visits with the Countess turn the unique woman into a confidante who reveals her somewhat mysterious past. The novel blends two distinct stories: that of Ben, Charlotte and their European adventures, told by way of an omniscient third-person narrator, and that of the Countess, told in her own voice, beginning with her unconventional family life and continuing to her teen years, when a World War I romance with a prince—who would go on to become the king of England—forever changed her life. A mystery lies at the intersection of these two stories. What connection do a possible poisoning, spies and a man who knocks Charlotte down on the sidewalk have to the Countess? Is the Countess correct in thinking that these shadowy men mean to isolate her in an attempt to prevent her from trying to claim what she feels is her rightful share of her royal family’s inheritance? Readers who prefer conclusive answers may be disappointed to find that, at novel’s end, all Ben and Charlotte have to go by are their own best guesses as to what’s behind the bizarre incidents. Despite this ambiguity, Nemer deftly weaves together the different story strands, with the Countess’ ill-fated royal love affair and Ben and Charlotte’s marital struggles convincingly intertwining.
A compelling novel that captures the feel of midcentury Europe, bringing it to life with complex, sympathetic characters.