Julia Winters does not want to be in Lisbon. But then, in 1940, few of the people who were in Lisbon wanted to be there. After the Nazis invaded Poland, France, Norway, etc., streams of refugees were pouring into the city hoping to catch a ship to America or England. It was always Julia’s dream to live in Paris. Her husband, Pete, was more than happy to bring her to Europe. By the time we meet them in David Leavitt’s The Two Hotel Francforts, the Winters have just arrived in Lisbon. Julia has been talking about staying in Lisbon rather than leaving on the Manhattan with all the other American ex-patriates. Pete has promised to take her to New York kicking and screaming if he has to. And then one morning, as they have their morning spat and coffee at a local cafe, they meet the Frelengs.
Edward and Iris Freleng have also fled France and are also preparing to travel to New York on the Manhattan. The couples’ meet-cute involves a deck of cards and a pair of smashed glasses. Pete and Edward get on well, but Julia is not disposed to make friends. That night, Pete and Edward go out for drinks, have a lot of absinthe, and end up naked on the beach together.
The beginning of The Two Hotel Francforts was remarkably similar to a book I read earlier this year, Ford Madox Ford’s novel, The Good Soldier. In that novel, two couples met in Europe. One member of each couple is dependent on the other. One member of each couple has a hidden past. Everyone is lying. The couples’ lives tangle together. War is on the horizon. But in The Good Soldier, it was a woman and a man that had an affair. In The Two Hotel Francforts, two men have an affair.
A city full of refugees on a continent at war is a terrible place to conduct an affair. Worse, Edward and Pete have only a week before the Manhattan arrives in Lisbon. In spite of this, Leavitt creates some space for the two lovers to explore their attraction. They have just a little time before their histories and entanglements catch up.
The Two Hotel Francforts is not a true love story. Nor is it, as Modox Ford wrote it in 1915, the saddest story the narrator had ever heard. I have to wonder if Leavitt has read The Good Soldier and, if so, why he didn’t acknowledge it in his notes at the end. There are too many similarities to dismiss.