Two Romanian men find true love in 1920s Paris in this slim novel from the prolific British author (Chapman’s Odyssey, 2012, etc.).
A fairy tale emerges from flashbacks. In 1900, a prince was riding through the Romanian countryside when he noticed an 11-year-old peasant boy. With his mother’s consent, he adopted him and moved him to Paris. Thus, Razvan Popescu became the titular prince’s boy. The prince was no sexual predator; his project was to refine the boy into a cultured gentleman, and he succeeded, but we learn nothing of the prince’s heart, and this is a troubling gap. When the novel begins, it’s 1927. The narrator, Dinu Grigorescu, 19, has just arrived in Paris. His father, Cezar, a wealthy Bucharest lawyer, is bankrolling his long vacation. The virginal Romanian visits a male brothel, where Razvan is an improbable employee. (The prince has killed himself after a disfiguring stroke, but his boy still has the apartment.) Love strikes like lightning; Razvan quits the brothel to devote himself to Dinu. Any sleaziness is obscured by pleasing circumlocutions; Bailey shows the light touch of an Armistead Maupin in this first section. What follows is messier, with too many plot developments for so short a tale. Returning to Bucharest, Dinu finds he’s gained a stepmother. Amalia proves an ally, calming Cezar’s rage on discovering his son’s sexual orientation. His father has become an anti-Semite, reflecting Romania’s poisonous new preoccupation. Eventually, at the suggestion of a persecuted Jewish professor, the two leave Romania for good; in Paris, Razvan is still waiting patiently for his Dinu. The lovers are faithful, compatible, with no material worries, and yet, without foreshadowing, Dinu experiences unexplained “bouts of despair,” while Razvan professes a “longing for death.” The darkness doesn’t feel earned.
A love story coexists uneasily with the rise of fascism.