Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sebastian Faulks' "On Dolphin Street"

The Denver Post

February 24, 2002

By Dylan Foley

Sebastian Faulks' new novel "On Green Dolphin Street" is a love story set in America in 1960, a country in the throes of the Cold War and on the cusp of momentous change. As an English diplomat's wife has a tumultuous affair with a Bohemian journalist, jazz is flooding into the mainstream culture, and John F. Kennedy is about to win the presidency.

Faulks' seductive and radiant prose brings alive the character of Mary van der Linden. Mary is the dutiful wife of the alcoholic Charlie, a once-promising member of the British foreign service based in Washington, D.C.

The 40-year-old Mary enters a midlife crisis without really knowing it and falls for the advances of Frank Renzo, a war-damaged reporter. Frank is a plainspoken jazz lover, offering Mary alternatives to her stagnant suburban existence as housewife and mother. She commutes to New York from Washington to start an affair with him.

Faulks is the author of the popular trilogy of novels set in Europe during World War II, including "The Girl at the Lion d'Or," "Birdsong" and "Charlotte Gray," which has been made into a movie with Cate Blanchett.

Faulks has ventured into new territory by writing about America. With "On Green Dolphin Street," he has written a high-end literary romance novel. What Faulks captures beautifully is the cadence of the United States 40 years ago, where the cars are big and covered with chrome, every adult smokes and the hard liquor flows all the time.

Just beneath the surface of the bright times are the recent horrors of World War II and the McCarthy era. Mary, Frank and Charlie all suffered in the war. Mary's fiance was killed in combat. Frank is haunted by the men he killed in Asia. Charlie dreams of his beloved soldiers who were wiped out in Italy. Faulks seamlessly weaves in the mid-century American history into his novel. Frank was harassed by the FBI for writing articles on the Emmett Till murder in 1955, where a 14-year-old black child was murdered by white racists in Mississippi. Though Sen. Joe McCarthy is already disgraced and dead, Frank is still shadowed by FBI agents, ready to destroy his life and expose his affair with Mary.

Along the way, jazz acts as a minor character in the novel, with the book title coming from a Miles Davis composition. Characters go to jazz clubs like the Five Spot, and Faulks' prose at times has the rhythm and edge of a Miles Davis trumpet solo.

Mary throws herself into the frenetic energy of New York. Faulks has done his research well- when Frank gives Mary a tour of Manhattan, he waxes nostalgic about elevated trains that have been torn down and takes her to Italian restaurants with wine in straw-covered bottles.

Faulks is melodic in his description of New York's dives, conveying brutality and immigrant hopes. He writes of Hell's Hundred Acres, what Soho was called when artists still lived there. Mary goes to loft parties, shares reefers with painters and tells people she is a writer. Frank's world is blowing her prim and proper mind.

For Mary, though, it is a guilt-racked affair. She has met a soulmate in Frank, but still loves the downward-spiraling Charlie. Frank becomes a sensual obsession, and she torments herself by thinking of her family.

The romance between Frank and Mary is from a bygone time. It conjures up images of men in fedoras giving closed-mouth kisses to women in proper hats and gloves. Their illicit romance is thrown for a loop when Charlie has a nervous breakdown in a Moscow hotel. In a bleak, bugged hotel room with the KGB hovering outside, Mary must begin the process of choosing between duty and true love.

In Faulks' vivid novel of New York, America's false innocence is the setting for Mary and Frank's love affair. For Mary, her tragedy is that her choice between Frank or her husband and children will involve heartbreak either way.

(ON GREEN DOLPHIN STREET By Sebastian Faulks, Random House, 348 pages, $24.95)

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