Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on An Unexpected Guest.
Under a Paris sky, diplomat’s wife Clare Moorhouse prepares an elaborate dinner on her husband’s behalf. Second to the British Minister in Paris, it is Edward Moorhouse’s responsibility to fill in for his boss when he is indisposed, confident that his American wife of twenty years will arrange everything flawlessly even with only one day’s notice.
A master of such obligations, Clare begins a series of lists that dictate her day, from coddling an emotional but brilliant cook to arranging for extra staff, personally attending to the details of flower arrangements and particular delicacies purchased at a local market. By the time Clare leaves the house on her errands, everything is in preparation, nothing left to chance on another busy day of supporting Edward’s ambitions (he is hopeful of receiving an appointment to Ireland). It is a role that suits Clare perfectly, in sharp contrast to a past she has tried to forget.
Stopped in the street by a stranger asking directions, Clare is shaken by the thought that she has seen a man from her past in the crowd, an Irish rebel long believed dead. As the day goes on, memories of their time together—and her actions—prey on Clare at every turn. It was a phase of her life she ought to have made peace with, a relationship she has never mentioned to Edward, who has always viewed his wife as perfection personified. While ticking off the items on her list, a fissure of memory cracks open, unsettling Clare, who once more is sure she has seen Niall’s face in a group of shoppers.
The author contrasts both aspects of the life of a woman caught between worlds: the façade of sophistication and confidence that makes her an ideal companion and mother of two sons, and the emotional turmoil that follows her from shop to shop, mini-crisis to mini-crisis, issues no longer easily put aside until later. When her fifteen-year-old son, Jamie, returns from boarding school without notice for the weekend (in trouble again), Clare adds yet another layer to her troubles du jour, the delicate balance of dealing with an idealistic adolescent and his disapproving father, the guilt of knowing she has been too willing to overlook Jamie’s rebellions.
By the time the first guest arrives and Clare’s tasks are almost done, her inner battle has reached a quiet resolution, years of guilt and fear confronted as she determines to join the fragments herself into one smooth whole. With a calm born of the day’s transitions, Clare accepts the mistakes of her youth, prepared to do whatever is necessary to meet her obligations as a citizen of the world and the mother of a son too like herself. Behind the elaborate rituals of diplomatic society, a marriage proves stronger than its respectable façade, youthful passion fades, and a mother becomes a moral compass for a troubled son.
The author couches all in the esoterica of upper-class celebration and the dangers posed to diplomatic families post-9/11. Clare segues into the past with Niall; her temporizing and rationalizing over Jamie’s actions becoming somewhat tedious, the unflattering habits of a woman more comfortable with boundaries than personal freedom. These decisions are life-changing for Clare, though she is never in danger of losing her security or her freedom. Even the bravado at the end is wrapped in the courtesies her position demands as the wife of a diplomat.