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The Two Hotel Francforts, by David Leavitt, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99/$25, 272 pages

In the summer of 1940, with the misery of war engulfing large swaths of Europe, neutral Portugal provided a temporary haven for thousands of civilian refugees, their last chance of escape to real safety in America. David Leavitt’s eighth novel, The Two Hotel Francforts, invokes the desperate plight of these refugees, not as a focal point of the story but as a backdrop of indistinct shadows at the periphery of the book’s central line of vision.

Pete Winters, an American car salesman, has managed to secure a room at the Hotel Francfort in Lisbon with his beautiful, emotionally fragile wife Julia. The couple have reluctantly fled their elegant apartment in Paris and are now kicking their heels in Lisbon’s cafés, casinos and cocktail bars until they can board the SS Manhattan to New York. If Julia is unhappy about leaving Paris, she is still more so about returning to America, for reasons explained only in the final pages of the novel. She passes her time playing a variant of solitaire, her favourite game, called – tellingly – Beleaguered Castle.

Chance, meanwhile, is dealing the Winters a dangerous hand in the form of another expatriate couple, Iris and Edward Frelang, with whom they strike up an unlikely friendship. The Frelangs are staying at the nearby Francfort Hotel. Affluent, rootless bohemians, they co-author popular detective novels under the extravagant pseudonym Xavier Legrand. Their singular, nocturnal arrangements are equally concealed from plain view, as we soon learn.

Decoys, fake names, doubles and puzzles abound in this carefully constructed novel. I sensed Leavitt having fun with the layered intricacies of his narrative: the two hotels with the same name; the two couples with their respective and paralleled secrets; the writers of detective novels who wish to remain undetected; the player of solitaire whose solitude is slowly unravelling her. Early in the novel, Edward accidentally treads on Pete’s glasses, rendering the latter helpless, able only to see “the outlines of things”. Soon after, Edward seduces Pete but takes care first to remove his glasses, “So that you can truthfully say you never saw what was coming.” Not too difficult for the reader to see that poor vision of various kinds will be a running metaphor in the ensuing action.

Lisbon itself is described with great precision, and the distinctive architecture of narrow streets and towering lifts, or elevadores, are vivid in our mind’s eye, a fitting symbol for the precarious relationships in which the two couples find themselves. As Pete observes while ascending the Bica Elevator: “Marriage itself is a kind of funicular, the regular operation of which it is the duty of certain spouses not just to oversee but to power.” A pleasing aphorism, yet the novel is not much concerned with marriage and has little to say about it.

The problem with the novel as a whole is that it is never very obvious what it is about. Leavitt has seven previous novels to his name and several short story collections. A professor of creative writing at the University of Florida, he has twice won the PEN/Faulkner Award and two of his novels have been made into films. The Two Hotel Francforts does not match up to his usual standard.

The slickly superficial dialogue, of which there is a great deal, is somewhat Waugh-esque, but while the compulsive obliquity of the verbal exchanges in Waugh throbs with unarticulated meaning, Edward and Iris sound merely shallow and pretentious. Calling the Frelangs’ dog Daisy is surely a sly nod in the direction of The Great Gatsby, but if Pete seems at times like a pale imitation of Fitzgerald’s naive observer-narrator, Nick Carraway, he never acquires Carraway’s depth of self-knowledge. His revelation at the start of the novel that his wife is dead is delivered with startling flippancy: “I should mention – I can mention, since Julia is dead now and cannot stop me, that my wife was Jewish.” His reaction when she actually dies is barely less so.

Not one of the central foursome rouses much sympathy or interest. Dead or alive, I couldn’t care less about neurotic Julia in her Lanvin and Chanel. Nor did I care about lanky Iris, patiently abasing herself in the service of her husband’s toxic fantasies. We never learn why Pete succumbs so enthusiastically to Edward’s sexual advances, having no homosexual proclivities and a lifetime of apparently happy heterosexual relations behind him. There is a certain erotic kick at first but the energy soon leeches out of their encounters, making the whole affair increasingly unconvincing. There is some attempt to explain the role played by Iris in the marital set-up but as explanations go, the determination to hang on to one’s husband at any cost doesn’t hold much water.

Too much backstory, too many last- minute revelations, too many plot twists, too little real development of any of the characters. Ultimately I simply could not find the pulse of this novel, which beneath the stylish surface seemed as hollow as the lives of its main characters.

Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)

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