Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on An Unexpected Guest.
Korkeakivi’s novel unfolds though the eyes of American Clare Moorhouse, a skilled wife of the British ambassador in Paris. Clare is in flurry of preparations for an
embassy dinner for her husband. Interweaving Clare’s past and her present into a gossamer whole, daily events trigger recollections and memories.
Much as with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, readers must construct the psychological and emotional makeup of Clare in their own minds.
Stalwart Edward Moorhouse hopes that the evening will presage his own ambassadorship to Dublin. Clare sees the dinner as the final rung in her life as a career diplomat’s wife, a job she had adopted with the best of intentions and with no argument. Over the years, Clare has encouraged Edward’s career and has had little room for complaint, other than niggling memories of a trip to Dublin she took twenty-five years ago which always seems to be clouding her hard-earned achievements.
Helped by well-meaning housekeeper Amelie and self-important Mathilde, the embassy cook who talks with Clare as though she were a squabbling spouse, the serene efficiency that Clare has cultivated over the years is about to be put to the test. What starts out in gentle, syncopated preparations soon turns into something far more troubling when Clare gets word that Jamie, her youngest and most rebellious son, has been suspended from his exclusive boarding school in England.
Since Korkeakivi is showing one day in Clare's life, acute attention is given to the passionate details of her domestic existence. From a marine landscape by Turner to the organization of Clare’s dinner staff, to the “to-do” list including the business of inscribing place cards, outwardly Clare is a picture of calm and competence as she works with Amelie to primp the formal dining room. Clare refuses to think about handsome Irishman Niall and her journey to St. Stephens Green in Dublin, where the rain splattered the remains of her humanity.
Capturing the ceremonial pomp and circumstance that often surrounds a diplomatic family’s life (and the fact that none of it really belongs to them), Korkeakivi sets her story just after the Iraq war, when the peril of terrorism is all the greater for its immediacy and its immensity. After a prominent French official is assassinated, Clare and Edward must walk a fragile balance and not allow this to dominate the discussion throughout the evening. Despite this setback, however--and like Clarissa Dalloway--Clare is assured to have a successful dinner party.
Intimacy, particularly emotional intimacy, and the preservation of truth are two of the over-riding themes of the novel. For twenty-five years, Clare
has has been imprisoned within an invisible vault of guilt and self-hatred. While Jamie spirals further out-of-control, becoming an issue that Clare is forced to address, an encounter with a Turkish man jumpstarts her memories of being a “love-besotted stooge.” Meanwhile, images of Niall are resolute and enigmatic, like “a battered but unfaltering church along a windswept shore.” The reader is constantly invited to compare and contrast radical Niall and reserved Edward, the two significant love interests in Clare’s life.
Much of Clare’s emotional state is based on that sole-defining moment back in America, and in Dublin, when she was too young to know any better and her feelings for Niall ended up obliterating all the time that passed between them.
An unexpected encounter in the present eventually forces Clare to move toward a new kind of honesty so that she can free up her past with Niall and clasp her true future with Edward.