Diamond-sharp social observation inspirits a literary romance.
Second-novelist Clark (The Hills at Home, 2003) resurrects characters from her debut: Alden and Becky Lowe and their daughter, Little Becky, who rechristens herself Julie during a plane journey to Prague. Czechoslovakia in 1992 is a “fledgling Republic” where Alden will work at the Ministry of Finances while Becky advises female entrepreneurs. Their temporary home is a grand pile, Castle Fortune, which, like their offices, is staffed by colorful Czechs whom the Americans consider children, while the Europeans view their visitors as innocents. All are the subject of Clark’s patrician wit, but especially the Czechs and later the Africans. Relations between Alden and Becky are cool, and she has kept secret her ardent letters from William Baskett who has loved her for “a lifetime.” During a party at the castle, Alden’s adoring secretary Franca learns about the correspondence and confronts Becky, precipitating the story’s single event. Becky drives away, across Europe, taking a ferry from Sicily to Africa, to join William at the Roman villa in Libya he has spent two years restoring. An idyll ensues. “No one had ever been truer or stronger or quieter in the service of hopeful passion” than William, who showers 20 years’ worth of accumulated, exquisite gifts on indulged Becky. A book found in a cupboard reveals the parallel history of the villa: around a.d. 70, it was the home of “a highborn Roman matron,” Polla Lucilla, who divorced one husband and married another, ruinously. In Prague, Julie and Alden struggle to accept Becky’s departure. The year turns, the country divides and Alden’s sister shows up, heralding his return to New York and Julie’s—now Juliet’s—removal from her Czech lover to an Irish convent school, perhaps in preparation for volume three of the trilogy.
Erudite evocations of time, people and place, all delivered in a dry and old-world voice, partly compensate for authorial excess and a vague narrative line.