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MONTENEGRO by Starling Lawrence

MONTENEGRO

By Starling Lawrence

Pub Date: Aug. 11th, 1997
ISBN: 0-374-21407-7
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 A far cry from his collection of contemporary stories, Legacies (1996), this first novel by Norton's editor in chief is a tale of romance and honor set against the turbulent Balkans just before WW I--a setting with particular relevance to current events. Foreshadowing present-day conflicts in the region, Lawrence incorporates lots of information into his narrative about the various groups with a stake in the area. Lawrence, though, wears his research lightly and uses a protagonist--Auberon Harwell, an Englishman--who, like the reader, learns as he goes along. A spy for powerful British interests, Auberon poses as a botanist interested in the unique flora of Montenegro, the one region of Serbia not controlled by the Turks. Traveling inland from the Adriatic, he stops first in the mountain village of Cetinje, where the British ambassador reveals his contempt for the natives and where Auberon romances a young missionary, Lydia Wadham, who teaches in the local girls' academy. Lydia also provides Auberon with an introduction to a powerful local clan that lives on the furthest border of Montenegro, near a strategic valley controlled by Moslems. There, Auberon befriends Danilo Pekoevi, a hero in the local resistance movement opposing the Turks, whose wife, Sofia, hopes to see Toma, her only remaining son, escape to America. Mostly out of love for the beautiful Sofia, Auberon helps Toma escape his violent patrimony, but not before the young man makes the local situation worse by impregnating a local Moslem girl, whose clan insists on a wedding. When she commits suicide, the fragile peace is breached, and Auberon's escape with Toma assumes heroic dimensions. In fact, the novel itself thrives on this very conflict between heroism and the demands of realpolitik. Lawrence's simple notion--that the heart can't always have what it wants--is enriched by the exotic textures of his setting. A lush, middlebrow drama that's perfect for the big screen--and could easily become the next English Patient, given the right director.