Rinaldi (The Jukebox Queen of Malta, 1999, etc.) takes a familiar narrative model—the interlocking lives of residents in a Manhattan apartment building—and gives it some bright new plumage.
Echo Terrace, a glitzy condo close by the Twin Towers, is aptly named, for the building is clamorous with ghosts as the story begins in 1992. Romanian concierge Farro Fescu has never recovered from the loss of his uncle to German bombs during WWII; celebrity quiltmaker Maggie Sowle mourns the death of her man Henry; and so on. But if the past looms large, the present sizzles with (melo)drama, including a murder and two suicides. Two episodes are especially gripping. The first (drama) is the terrifying rape of the pretty housemaid Yesenia on a subway ride; the second (melodrama) is the appearance of two rogue FBI agents, who hustle cosmetic surgeon Theo Tattafruge to a deserted country cottage to perform a sex-change operation on a henchman of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. In two of the more gentle sequences, Westernized Iraqi Abdul Saad woos actress Angela Crespi by covering her foyer in rose petals, while his father Muhta has a decorous affair with Maggie. Rinaldi sets time and mortality in opposition to his characters’ desires, not just for sex but for children (Theo), for artistic perfection (Maggie), desire to be grounded by talismans (a tribal canoe, a bearskin linked to Teddy Roosevelt), and for more money, period (Luther Rumfarm, the villain of the piece). The residents are shaken by the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, and the attacks of 9/11 provide the novel’s climactic horror, which could scarcely be better told but inevitably dwarfs the characters. Only Fescu stands up to the tragedy, defying a cop’s order to leave in order to serve as the building’s lonely sentinel.
Superb entertainment: some of the characterizations are superficial, but what counts is the warmhearted celebration of New Yorkers and their restless curiosity.