In The Third Angel, author Alice Hoffman explores the interrelationships between reality and fantasy even as she interlocks her narrative with the ancient and mysterious powers of love. What is actually a triptych of stories is also a smorgasbord of finely wrought observations on life and death, and how "the third angel," that shady place in between, can influence people in some of the most remarkable ways.
Although she has recently grown distant from her sister, Maddie grudgingly arrives in London from New York to attend Allie's wedding. From the outset, Maddie's frustration with her sister is obvious, and she's quite surprised that Allie is in reality going
to marry the far-too handsome and self-obsessed Paul Lewis. Allie is usually so practical and smart, which is why her choice of partner is ever more bizarre.
But attraction is a very strange thing. When Maddie looks over at Paul one
night at dinner, there's a moment of doubt, the thud of the pulse, and "the quick image of the disaster to come."
For Maddie this mild flirtation is just a game, but the realization that Paul is dying of cancer causes her to ultimately question her loyalty to Allie, and also for Allie to eventually question her commitment to Paul.
Meanwhile, Paul's mother, Frieda, is only nineteen when in 1966 she comes to London to work for four months at the Lion Park Hotel in Knightsbridge. Refusing to follow the path of her father, Frieda is happy to pursue a measure of independence by working as a maid rather than going to university to study medicine, as her father desired.
When Frieda unexpectedly becomes infatuated with James - an ambitious pop singer who has spent much of his life battling a crippling pain in his hip - she finds many of her assumptions about her life and her capacity to love challenged. Like James, Frieda also sees herself as an oddity and burdened soul who neither fits into her parents' comfortable existence in Reading or even in London, with its swinging parties and newfound sexual freedoms always at her fingertips.
While James finds escape in snorting heroin with his wealthy and beautiful girlfriend, Stella, ironically
it is Frieda who becomes James' promised muse, bound to each other by equal parts adoration and affection, their mutual feelings proving to be much deeper and much more urgent than either of them ever expected.
Hoffman's multi-layered narrative comes full circle when bookish twelve-year-old Lucy Green arrives in London in 1953 with her father, Ben, to attend the wedding of Bryn, her stepmother Charlotte's sister.
Here we finally learn about the mystery surrounding the events in Room 707 and the significance of poor drunken Teddy Healy, who has spent much of his life drowning his sorrows in the seedy bar of the Lion Park Hotel.
While all of the characters in these three time periods have a connection to the events that once took place in 707, it is the eventual meeting between Lucy and Teddy that signifies a total connection of thought and emotion, which in turn allows us to solve the riddle of the ghosts and the angry voices that always begin to shout around 10:30 p.m.
Riddling her book with spirits and symbols, Hoffman's characters battle with
the irrationalities of love and the frustrations of life. Maddie and Allie are almost torn asunder by their conflicting desires for Paul; Frieda finds herself blindsided by her unexpected attraction to James; even Lucy, who believes in love letters and in romance and destiny, willingly becomes a go-between for the dashingly handsome Michael Macklin, who surprisingly still holds a flame for his one true love, Bryn.
Throughout the course of this novel, Hoffman's narrative voice stays deliberately smooth, emphasizing how so many of her characters are often frustrated by the complexities of human nature and the rocky pathways toward love. Even as she waxes lyrical with some of the most beautiful imagery, she brings Lucy's narrative full circle, highlighting how this young girl, who once lost her faith in human nature, finally discovers the ultimate power and the redemptive qualities of love.