Faulks (The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Charlotte Gray, both 1999, etc.) seeks new ground by setting his latest in the US during the Nixon–JFK election campaign of 1960—with results that reveal his powerful command of story-drive but skirt closer than usual to the familiar and melodramatic.
After 11 years of marriage and two children, Britishers Charlie and Mary van der Linden look almost perfect from the outside: Charlie a brilliantly capable diplomat with the British Embassy in DC, Mary serving willingly and happily as his indefatigably attractive, intelligent, socially skilled hostess-wife. But that’s the outside. Charlie is drinking way—way—too much and has something faintly shady (or so the FBI thinks) from back in Dien Bien Phu days that may be resurfacing. And though Mary is far too well-trained to say so, sending the children to England for school (an austerity move) has left her rudderless and at times passionately lonely, not to mention that her mother, in London, is dying of cancer. Enter Frank Renzo, an American journalist who’ll be covering the national campaign if he, too, has at last fallen off the bottom of the FBI’s suspicious-list. At a boozy party at the van der Lindens’ in DC, so smitten is Frank with the attractive Mary that after leaving he pretends he’s shut his hand in a car door (he actually cut himself) just so he can come back for first aid and be around her longer. Soon enough, mutually passionate love ensues, Mary travels often to New York where she claims to be working on a book but sees Frank, and depressed Charlie gradually heads for a breakdown.
The sex is powerful, the tone intelligent, the authorial aims high, the period almost too perfectly rendered (everyone eats steak and eggs, nary a thought of cholesterol) —and yet, and yet: on this virgin American soil, the historical resonance and dimension usual for Faulks has for once eluded him.