An American doctor in Paris is confronted by a slew of mysteries in this slow-moving debut.
Matilde Anselm has had a brilliant professional life and a dismal love life. After her sweetheart died in Vietnam, she became convinced she brought lovers bad luck and stayed resolutely single. Yet, at 50, she is a top cardiac anesthesiologist, in Paris to work on a heart transplant with an old colleague, the surgeon Willem Madsen. Who is the patient? Willem is as unforthcoming as Emil Sahran, the medical troubleshooter behind the assignment; Emil is a third-generation Parisian of Tunisian descent. A greater mystery looms. A French lawyer tells her the recently deceased Byron Saxe has left her his apartment. A mistake, surely; Matilde has never heard of Saxe, but she settles into the tiny space and discovers a concealed door leading to a seemingly deserted but magnificent suite. Next, the manager of a local restaurant hands Matilde an envelope addressed to Saxe, the first of many. While the streets of Paris are awash in demonstrations (it’s 1990, and an invasion of Iraq is imminent), Matilde becomes immersed in letters dating back 50 years. They describe a romantic love undone by the Spanish Civil War. Carlos, in Paris, is unable to help his young wife, Alba, and their baby, captured by Franco’s forces. What has all this to do with Matilde? Clue: She’s a foundling. It emerges the letters are being translated by a young American woman, sole inhabitant of the suite and a leading anti-war protester. Rymer expends so much energy assembling and disassembling these puzzles that he has none left over to nail the authenticity of Matilde and Emil or their sudden transformation into lovers. The end is a melodramatic swirl, juxtaposing the eventual surgery and the drama on the streets.
Rymer has drastically overextended himself. For a novel that covers, seamlessly, street demonstrations, surgery and much else besides, see Ian McEwan’s Saturday.