Old men’s memories of making history overshadow their children’s less dramatic lives.
A U.S. senator for 54 years, Kim Malone was, like his idol FDR, a liberal Democrat, a mover and shaker. Now Kim lies dying in a Virginia hospital, visited by his only child, Alec. His son disappointed Kim twice: by not following him into politics, and then, after becoming a well-regarded news photographer, by refusing an assignment in Vietnam. Despite these past disagreements, and their temperamental differences, father and son share a deep affection. Adopting different viewpoints, veteran political novelist Just (Forgetfulness, 2006, etc.) narrates with his trademark urbanity, moving from Kim’s memories to those of Alec and his wife Lucia. Czech by origin, Swiss by upbringing, she too had an activist parent; her mother, a socialist, held salons in Zurich while the outdoorsy Lucia skied competitively until a severe accident changed her life. She was an au pair in the Washington home of the Swiss ambassador when she met Alec in the early 1960s. They married, had a daughter and bought a house in Georgetown. Then, over the fence, Lucia hears cocktail-party chatter from the Central European exiles of the title. It acts as a siren song for Lucia. She falls in love with Nikolas, a Hungarian professor/novelist, and they elope to Switzerland. Though devastated, Alec does not fight for her. He’s an enigma, everyone agrees, and that’s OK—so was Iago. But Othello’s treacherous ensign was an enigma in action, while Alec is mired in passivity, a dull character in an unexamined marriage. A second old man restores some energy to this ragged story line. In a blatant contrivance, Lucia’s long-disappeared father Andre shows up in a Washington boardinghouse. His experience as a partisan in Yugoslavia, fighting the fascists in World War II, bookends Kim’s fights in the Senate; both men were committed to the struggle in a way Alec never managed to be.
The least substantive of Just’s recent novels.