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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 9 November 2013
Pete and Julia Winter, expatriate Americans, are forced to leave their Paris home in the summer of 1940 when Hitler's forces invade and, dodging shellfire and mortar fire, they drive all the way across France, through Spain and arrive in Lisbon, Portugal. There, at the only neutral port left in Europe, they wait for the arrival of the SS Manhattan, a ship which the State Department has dispatched to retrieve stranded Americans. Surrounded by refugees of all nationalities, Pete and Julia while away their time at the Suica Cafe, where they meet Edward and Iris Frelengs, a worldly, bohemian, independently wealthy couple who have travelled widely and are keen to take the Winters under their wing. However, although the Frelengs, who jointly write detective novels under the name of Xavier Legrand, both intrigue and fascinate Pete and Julia, we begin to see that they are manipulative and controlling characters locked in a dysfunctional marriage, and soon the Winters become deeply involved in a situation that we know can only end unhappily.

First-person narrated by Pete, this skilfully composed and well-researched novel (three pages of bibliography appear at the end of the book) is one that pulls you into the story from the first pages and, once I started reading, I carried on straight to the end. I do have to say, however, that the main protagonists are not very sympathetic, nor fully-fleshed as characters, and certain aspects of the plot were not entirely convincing - but I'm afraid that I can't explain further without including spoilers. That said, I enjoyed reading this novel, becoming intrigued by the characters' predicament and keen to see how, and if, the situation would be finally be resolved.

3.5 Stars.
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on 9 September 2014
I’ve liked some of David Leavitt’s other books but this one totally failed to engage me. I thought the plot to be nonsense - the most unlikely affair happened out of nothing with no signals either way; the behaviour of one the participants to the other would have ended it in real life; the most unlikely compliant actions of one of the spouses.

I also found it hard to read and focus on the story as the writing was like an aimless meander trying to kill time. There was no core interesting kernel to grab your attention and make you care about any of the characters who were all unappealing.

One to avoid alas.
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on 27 September 2014
This is a beautifully written book. It evokes the atmosphere of wartime Lisbon and the fear and dislocation of people fleeing from terror to uncertainty with vivid artistry. But its central characters are all unsympathetic and there is an air of unreality about them and what befalls them. There is no clear background to the affair between Edward and Pete, which even the cover blurb describes as an "unlikely affair". The female characters are elusive and their emotions and behaviour come across as stylised rather than real.
Part of Leavitt's purpose seems to be to show how, in the face of war, everything is out of joint, including time itself. But, while I found the book readable, I was disappointed. It is, as the blurb again says "an extraordinary work"; but not a compelling one compared with some of Leavitt's other, brilliant, books. It is almost as if he is treating us to a literary experiment but one that does not quite come off.
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Peter and Julia Winters are Americans fleeing from Paris ahead of the advancing Nazis. Their flight is given extra impetus by Julia's Jewish background. They end up in Lisbon, a city full of refugees awaiting ships to America, and presided over by the dictator Salazar. In a café they meet another couple, Edward and Iris, he another American, she English, joint writers of detective novels. Their meeting in a highly, but none too subtly, symbolic moment is brought about by Edward standing on Peter's glasses.

The central part of the novel is taken up by an affair between two of the characters, while one spouse is apparently complicit, the other remains and must remain in ignorance. As the affair runs its course all seems relatively conventional in terms of the narrative structure, but then the final section completely undermines the reader's perceptions. Firstly the story is retold from different perspectives, and is revealed as being something very different from that which Peter, as first person narrator, believed it to be. He really was blind to the true nature of the events which unfolded from Edward standing on his glasses. Secondly, the novel becomes self-referential, commenting upon itself.

I could read The Two Hotel Francforts in a number of different ways. It is a portrait of decadence in the face of an impending apocalypse. It is a treatise on the corrosive nature of repressed and latent sexuality. It is a discourse on the process of novel writing. It is the examination of the fragility of objective versus subjective truth.

It also reminded me of a number of different novels. The shallowness of the expatriate Americans and their relationships strays into the territory of F Scott Fitzgerald. The self-referential nature of the text brings to mind John Fowles and the French Lieutenant's Woman. The strangely dispassionate sexuality is reminiscent of Jane Bowles' cult classic, Two Serious Ladies. The fact that the text is chock full of metaphor and symbols which rub against each other suggests parallels with Paul Auster.

So this is a novel of many layers which plays with the reader's perceptions in some interesting ways. It is also a well plotted novel which I found genuinely intriguing and engaging. It is not a difficult read.

And yet, and yet, it all seemed to be less than the sum of its parts. It just didn't work for me. Fundamentally I didn't believe it. I felt no empathy for the characters, as they seemed to display no empathy for each other. Two characters engage in an affair, which is totally alien to the previous experience of one of them, and a major step forward for the other, with absolutely no apparent doubt, guilt or uncertainty. These two characters are apparently physically besotted with each other and yet one walks out on the other at the first moment of private intimacy without a credible explanation. On a much more mundane level Peter is a car salesman whose flat is featured in the Paris edition of Vogue.

Part of my alienation from the novel is to do with the nature of the narration. In another piece of symbolism linking different parts of the story, Iris and Edward are revealed to have an autistic daughter. It cannot be unintentional that Peter is completely emotionally disengaged from events around him. The affair is described in a manner about as erotic as a car maintenance manual. A major life changing event at the end of the book seems to be dealt with along the lines of "Oh dear, that's a shame, better just order one pint of milk rather than two then".

To complete my dissatisfaction, the technique of seemingly ending every chapter with a cliffhanger behind which the East Enders drums would not feel out of place came to irritate me well before the end of the book.

There is undoubtedly some very clever writing in the Two Hotel Francforts, the question is whether it is too clever by half. For me, I'm afraid, the answer is an unequivocal "yes". My overall impression is that the author, David Leavitt set out to write A LITERARY NOVEL and ended up writing something overly ostentatious with far more style than substance.
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on 14 January 2015
Really very disappointing, and more than that, frustrating. The basis of the story is interesting and I wanted it to work, and even as the frustration continued and in deed increased, stuck with it to the end for some media reviews had clearly stated that the final 25 pages would bring it all together for the reader... alas, no.

The characters never felt important, perhaps because they often came as long pages of unengaging background. The vocabulary was fine for the American characters, but Leavitt wasn't convincing for the British - and speaking of vocab, the author describes the testicles of the narrator's love interest as prunes... It simply didn't come together on a number of levels.
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on 17 October 2014
As a fan of Mr Leavitt I found this book a little dull, did not have the sense of prescience his previous ones had. Interesting story of two American couples fleeing Europe and waiting in Lisbon for a ship home prior to the U.S. Joining world war2. Each couple staying at a Hotel named Francfort. The friendship that grew between them and the hidden pressers that a return to the U.S. Were having on them. In the end I found it slightly stilted and the ending manufactured.
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Lisbon, 1940, provides a temporary safe haven and hope for emigrating citizens from every country in Europe as they try to secure visas for passage by ship - any ship - out of Europe and away from the Nazis. For Americans with valid passports, life is more secure. The U.S. government has commandeered the S. S. Manhattan to transport stranded Americans in Lisbon back to New York. For these people, the biggest challenge is to kill time till the ship sails, and many of them combat their boredom in extravagant fashion. Author David Leavitt, in describing life in Lisbon in these crucial weeks before war engulfs all of Europe, examines four characters - three of them Americans - as they reveal their attitudes toward Europe, toward the United States, and ultimately toward each other.

By using Lisbon primarily as an incidental setting for the characters, not as the primary focus of the novel itself, Leavitt provides an unusual vantage point from which to approach the horrors of the war and its psychological effects on those trying to escape it. Two couples, Pete and Julia Winters, and Edward and Iris Freleng, meet for the first time at the Café Suica, when (in a symbolic moment) Edward Freleng inadvertently crushes Pete's eyeglasses as they fall to the pavement. The couples, both in their early forties, become friendly, though they have little in common. Pete, from Indianapolis, has been working most of his life as a car salesman, while his Jewish wife Julia, from New York, has always dreamed of having an apartment in Paris. Edward and his British wife Iris come from more privileged backgrounds, with Edward admitting that he has "never had a job in [his] life." Together he Frelengs write mystery novels for fun.

The two couples have far more in common in their secret lives than they do in the superficial lives which initially bring them together. Before fifteen pages have elapsed, Edward is flirting with Pete, and Pete is not discouraging him. The women, too, have secrets which are revealed in the course of the novel, and as the time for the departure of the Manhattan gets closer, their behavior becomes more and more frantic, with Julia insisting that she cannot possibly return to New York, and Iris manipulating Pete and Edward in order to maintain her sanity and her own sense of power. Soon tensions within all the relationships approach the breaking point.

Intriguing in its focus, the novel maintains its pace and keeps the reader entertained and interested throughout, despite the fact that the characters are not as fully developed as one might wish for. What we learn about them is based primarily on their superficial, outward behavior and upon secrets from the past which the author sometimes withholds until the conclusion, preventing the reader from fully understanding the characters' motivations throughout. None of the characters can be considered "heroes," nor are they even very likeable. Obvious symbols abound - from the title to Julia's constant playing of solitaire, and the meeting between Pete and Edward at the crumbling Lisbon Castle with its ubiquitous peacocks. The conclusion, a tour de force, with its artificial commentary on the writing process itself, will intrigue (and perhaps amuse) lovers of literary fiction. Leavitt creates an unusual treatment of a tension-filled time and place with characters whom he manipulates effectively to illustrate his themes.
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on 24 February 2014
I have always greatly enjoyed Leavitt's work right back to the Lost Language of Cranes but this is a bit of a disappointment. Bloodless characters and an wholly unbelievable gay romance. There are some great descriptions of war time Lisbon but the sense period is destroyed at an early stage when a character claims to be ' gobsmacked'. This inelegant expression appeared in the 1980's and sits like a quartz watch in a photograph of Nancy Astor.
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In THE TWO HOTEL FRANCFORTS, longtime critics' darling American author David Leavitt has done an extraordinary job. He has created a seamless piece of historical fiction that gives us Lisbon, Portugal, in the early days of World War II, with an almost filmic you-are-there quality that is clearly the product of great research and imagination.

Anyone who's ever seen Humphrey Bogart's great 1942 World War II movie CASABLANCA, not to mention his lesser-known 1944 PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE, knows that many refugees were desperately trying to escape war-torn, Nazi-occupied Europe. And that, thanks to Antonio Salazar, dictator of Portugal from 1932-1968, and his hunger for hard cash money, Lisbon was the last neutral port left in Europe.

Leavitt has set his book in Lisbon, 1940. Whether there were actually two Hotel Francforts there I can't tell you, but Leavitt's writing convinced me there were. The city, like Casablanca, is packed with refugees of every European nationality, occasional royals, occasional spies, all uprooted, stuck in limbo, drinking away the days and nights in the Suica, the café that served as Lisbon's Rick's, while they struggle to get out of Europe. Two couples, each of which live in one of the Hotel Francforts, meet while waiting to board the SS Manhattan for passage to New York. Pete and Julia Winters, rather ordinary people who have long been living quiet lives on Paris's fashionable boulevards, and Edward and Iris Freleng, sophisticated European internationals, independently rich bohemians, though they write substandard detective novels to keep the ready cash flowing. The meeting is explosive, and will have lifelong consequences for the quartet.

The book is politically, emotionally and sexually charged. As is frequently the case in the work of Leavitt, who is openly gay, there is a smoothly and delicately told gay element to the story. Its narrator, Pete Winters, is rather that favorite post-modern device, the unreliable narrator. Though I would say, in his case, although he has been billed as just plain Pete, more just plain tricky, particularly as the novel ends.

The writer was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a graduate of Yale University, a professor at the University of Florida. He has also taught at Princeton University. His published fiction includes the short-story collection Family Dancing (finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award). Also the novels The Lost Language of Cranes,While England Sleeps (a controversial book that was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize). The Indian Clerk, (finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, shortlisted for the IMPAQ Dublin Award), has been optioned for filming by Scott Rudin. Two of Leavitt's other novels have been filmed: THE LOST LANGUAGE OF CRANES, directed by Nigel Finch; THE PAGE TURNER (released under the title FOOD FOR LOVE),directed by Ventura Pons.

I'd heard of Leavitt, but had never before read him. Amazon's Vine program has given me that opportunity, for which I'm grateful. I really enjoyed this book, and hope to read more of his work.
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on 21 January 2014
I like David Leavitt. I just felt this was rushed, light, and all over the place. Try The Lost Language of Cranes and While England Sleeps, which are excellent. I also want to read his book on Alan Turing.
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