Although the title of Leavitt’s literary novel is obscure, one of the characters—handsome Edward Freleng—immediately explains the notion pretty early on in the story. Apparently in Lisbon, there are (or were) two entirely different hotels, the Hotel Francfort and the Francfort Hotel. Since the beginning of the War, both hotels have been a magnet for the many ex-pats and refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation of France.
Focusing on Edward and his British wife, Iris, Leavitt’s tale is narrated through the eyes of car salesman Pete Winters, who was forced with his wife, Julia, to flee Paris. Now they are among a group of expatriate Americans awaiting passage home. Edward and Iris, along with their beloved dog Daisy, have given up their chance to sail to England and have decided to become nomads of sorts. Writers of a series of popular detective novels, elegant Iris and Edward are “card-carrying members” of “the restless and the lost.“ Both are poised to march to the drumbeat of a War playing loud and steady across Europe.
In the summer of 1940, Lisbon is viewed by many Westerners as immune from the upheavals of Nazism, though there are fears that Hitler might forge an alliance with Franco and Portugal will be swallowed up by the Axis. Somewhat apart from the machinations of the outside world, the cafe Suica in central Lisbon, has become a popular destination for foreigners. Here the couples meet for the first time.
While neurotic Julia loathes the prospect of going home—and for the hundredth time relates her mad scheme to rent an apartment or a villa in Estoril—Dave is almost at once giddy with relief and gratitude. He asks Edward to escort him home after Edward accidentally steps upon his glasses. Their first meeting is electric, the attraction between them perhaps defined by their arduous circumstances. Without his glasses, Dave becomes completely unglued by Edward's sexual power. Exuding a sense of adventure and immediately possessing the attention of those around him, Edward gains the attention of our narrator in a way that forces Dave to challenge his marriage to Julia and his life so far.
Layering his story with ironies, Leavitt portrays Dave as an “everyman” who seems to have a life that is almost empty of Eros. He reminds us daily that, for all its detail, he has imagined all of the intimacies that his marriage to Julia entails. Dave is never quite certain whether he’s actually falling in love with Edward or fabricating some sort of wish fulfillment of a frustrated and stymied paramour. As the story ebbs and flows inexorably and smoothly along the shimmering Portugal coastline, Leavitt graphically portrays the unpredictable interplay of Dave’s desires and emotions while also presenting the notion of how, against all the odds, two people realize that they are physically attracted to each other.
Leavitt makes no attempt to disguise the translucent nature of sexual obsession as all four protagonists expose their secret wounds from the start. Like “commandos [scrambling] to gather up playing cards” Leavitt alone understands how much is at stake: “if just one [card] went missing, it would be a catastrophe.” While Dave’s desultory affair is the crux of the novel, the deeper theme is how we let our own perceived inadequacies and voyeuristic curiosities get the better of us, and how our base desires for lust and security can intertwine into futility. There’s a sense that these people are constantly living on the edge, either restless or lost—particularly Julia, who sees her Jewishness as a burden that she could have paid a good price to be rid of.
Although I wanted to like this novel more than I did, I appreciate Leavitt’s unique gift for seizing on sharply drawn impressions that make his Lisbon settings almost jump from the page. From the habits of a long marriage, to a dog nearing the end of its life, to a vagabond existence where no one has the disposition for settlement, Leavitt’s novel is a paean to the human journey, where the transitory nature of a friendship becomes a deep and abiding reflection of a lost and broken love.