The Two Hotel Francforts
Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ
In the summer of 1940, the port of Lisbon in Portgual is the only neutral one left in all of Europe. And it is here that many Americans have gathered to await the arrival of the SS Manhattan, a ship that will take them home and away from Hitler and his invasion.
Pete Winters and his wife Julia have fled from Paris where they have made their home for many years, through Spain and down into Portgual. They are staying at the Hotel Francfort and spend their days in cafes and restaurants as they wait for the Manhattan to arrive. Julia is perennially dissatisfied with everything: she hates their hotel room, despite the fact that they are lucky to have one, especially one with a bathroom and that’s as decent as it is, she hates the smell of Lisbon and the fishwives and the food and the people. But more than anything in the world, Julia hates the idea of going back to New York.
The Winters’ meet the Frelengs who are staying at the Francfort Hotel, the other one. There are two hotels with Francfort in their name in Lisbon and the irony of fleeing Germans to stay at hotels named such things does not escape anyone. Although eccentric, the Frelengs, Edward and Iris are obviously very wealthy and have lived a grand but bohemian lifestyle in a variety of five star hotels across Europe.
As the four of them await the arrival of the ship to take them back to America, they strike up a multi-faceted and often complicated friendship frought with manipulation, sexual adventure, betrayal, confusion and exhilaration. For one of them, it is something new and breathtakingly bold. For another, it is a part of a long running game. For a third person, it’s something that needs to be carefully managed, lest things go wrong. And for the fourth in the friendship….it’s something that they have no idea exists.
When Hitler invaded France in May of 1940, it changed the landscape not only for the Europeans themselves, in particular the Jewish Europeans, but also thousands of ex-pats from all over the globe. For people like Pete and Julia, who have lived in Paris a long time, it became a matter of knowing they had leave rather than wanting to. Especially considering Julia was Jewish, something that she kept very much under wraps. They were lucky enough to be able to flee through Spain down into Portugal and find a hotel room to await the arrival of a ship sent by the US government to bring such European expats as themselves back to New York, away from where the war was beginning to ravage parts of Europe. The SS Manhattan was only taking American citizens, which in turn left thousands of others who had nothing to do with the war turfed out of their homes, turned away from European countries and left floundering in Portugal, faced with either waiting out the war there so long as Portugal remained uninvolved or fleeing somewhere else if it finally waded in.
When the Winters meet the Frelengs, prickly Julia is reluctant to become involved with them, given their eccentricity and devotion of their 15yo terrier Daisy whom they take with them everywhere. Pete is more open minded, finding a curious sensuality to Edward and it seems that after time spent with Julia driving from Paris to Lisbon, he is tired of her complaining and negativity. Edward introduces Pete to a whole range of things – long drives at night down to the beach after sipping Absinthe in a bar, he takes Pete to take in all the sights and sounds of Lisbon which, despite having been there longer than the Frelengs, Pete and Julia have yet to experience.
There’s something utterly beautiful about the writing of this book: the story pulls you in, makes you imagine what it would be like to in the sort of limbo that the Winters are in, having been forced to flee their home and awaiting the ship to take them back to America. Pete is quite happy to go but Julia is adamant that she will not and keeps finding ways to try and get out of going. She comes across as high maintenance and very selfish, an unlikable character and yet I felt sorry for her, when she seemed so clueless. After the events that lead to tragedy the reader learns more about her, things that explain her motivations and actions so much better and give a much clearer picture of how desperately unhappy she must’ve been in her life and how the thought of going back to New York filled her with such fear and probably other things like shame and self-loathing and regret. I thought it was interesting that Julia was portrayed earlier on as perhaps the much more dominant partner and Pete the besotted doofus that gave her exactly what she wanted. It seemed that Pete turned out to be stronger than I’d realised (or perhaps Julia much more vulnerable) and I think there was definitely more to her than her exterior and that she did appreciate Pete, despite her actions.
I think this is a wonderful story, it made me wonder about people like this in World War II, you don’t hear much about those that had to leave their homes and flee but weren’t directly involved – maybe they were Americans or British. Maybe they got out safely, like those did on the SS Manhattan. This book had so many layers and I enjoyed uncovering every single one of them. It was also full of surprises the whole way and kept me guessing and wondering. I have heard much praise for David Leavitt but this is the first book I’ve read by him. It won’t be the last though.
Book #293 of 2013