When an aging architect, once a genius in his field, travels back to London in an effort to save one of his 1960s apartment buildings from demolition, he's in for an overdue emotional makeover.
“The journey of my life hasn’t yet reached its terminus, even if the buffet car has closed. I just need to feel that I’m doing more than marking time.” So speaks the eponymous hero of Packer’s first novel, a story sometimes lightly voiced yet suffused with regret and a creeping sense of mortality. As it opens, Otto, 79, a Holocaust survivor now in poor health and retired to a glorious Swiss villa of his own devising, is fading into a life of memory and reverie. But a magazine article announcing the planned destruction of Marlowe House, a peak of Otto’s and his late wife Cynthia’s achievement, revitalizes his sense of purpose. Soon he’s returning to England to appear in a television documentary intended to help save the building. This journey into the past becomes Otto’s opportunity to review his life, both personal and professional, which Packer lays out via extended flashbacks and letters. The tone is sincere, sometimes poignant, yet the psychology is comparatively shallow: Otto’s rifts with Cynthia and estranged son Daniel seem to turn on trivial or unlikely behaviors, explained in part by Otto’s wartime suffering. As the filming proceeds and Otto revisits old haunts, a mood of lugubriousness intensifies, and Otto’s brilliant career takes on the decaying, doomed feel of Marlowe House itself. Restoration is imminent, however—a cozy business of loose ends tied and rifts mended, in keeping with the novel’s simple, sometimes-sentimental objectives.
A sympathetic story unevenly told.