The U-2 incident. The Kennedy-Nixon debates. Smoky Greenwich Village bars and cool jazz (the book's title comes from a Miles Davis album). Do those seem like ancient history? Not to me. There's history --- and then there is History. The former is the kind you lived through; the latter happened before you were born. So it was a shock to realize that ON GREEN DOLPHIN STREET, which opens in 1959, when I was 14, is a legitimate historical novel and it is tempting to be especially picky about the way Sebastian Faulks, an Englishman, goes about authenticating a period I think of as my private property.
The story centers on Charlie van der Linden, a diplomat assigned to the British embassy in Washington, D.C. and his wife, Mary. Around them swirls a Cold War aura of suspicion and a giddy Eisenhower-era enthusiasm for big cars, family values and lots of scotch. It's an uneasy mix that becomes even less stable when Frank Renzo, an American newspaper reporter, shows up at one of the van der Lindens' parties. Not only do he and Mary start an affair, but he and Charlie are, in a way, on parallel tracks: both have troubling memories of World War II and both were at Dien Bien Phu, the last stand of defeated French colonialism in Vietnam. But Charlie is visibly self-destructing: he drinks his life away ("He barely had hangovers anymore, just days of gastric terror and mental absence") and his outlook is suicidally bleak. Frank, though temporarily blackballed for suspect liberal sympathies, is fighting his way back to journalistic legitimacy; covering the presidential campaign is his big chance. He is based in New York and the two cities are an interesting contrast: the pristine surfaces of Washington, the down-and-dirty vitality of Manhattan.
The '50s and early '60s are trendy these days, what with Oscar-nominated movies like Far From Heaven and The Hours. And, as in the careful, self-conscious art direction of these films --- the vintage car rolling slowly across the screen --- the period details in ON GREEN DOLPHIN STREET at first seem intrusive. We are regaled with descriptions of food (including "Salteen" crackers) and clothing (ads for Triumph Foundation Garments). An entire page is given over to Pennsylvania Station, which was torn down in a passion of urban renewal before New York awoke to the glories of older architecture. There are some heavy-handedly ironic winks and nudges, too, as when Frank thinks "the panic over the identity of the potential vice-president was morbid when Kennedy himself was so young" or he remarks of Vietnam, "We never could get American readers interested in that place."
Fortunately, the characters soon take over. Although Frank and Charlie have an attractive, Graham Greene-esque world-weariness and Mary seems initially to be one of those women trapped in housewifery, consumerism and motherhood (the very model for Betty Friedan's THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE), she turns out to be the most interesting of the three. Self-observing, imaginative and intelligent, she is nearly overwhelmed by the burdens of family love (the passages concerning her mother's death are among the strongest in the book) and the cold facts of mortality: "Only people in their wretched middle age had to face the truth, Mary thought; the slipped responsibilities of the old and young were hers alone to bear." At the same time, she is dazzled by the passion she feels for Frank, a love that seems to exist outside of time (an illusion sustained by the fact that the liaison is conducted almost entirely in New York) and drawn to the freedom he represents. Whether she will seize her opportunity for escape is a question that remains open to the very end of ON GREEN DOLPHIN STREET.
The convergence of love and war (in this case more cold than hot) is familiar territory for Faulks, whose brilliant World War II trilogy (THE GIRL AT THE LION D'OR, BIRDSONG, CHARLOTTE GRAY) combines a powerful romantic streak with details of crushing realism, a sense of destiny with a sense of futility. Mary and Frank's relationship is a given, like a hurricane or tidal wave; it doesn't seem to suffer from the slings and arrows that ordinary lovers are constantly ducking. Yet for Mary it also represents a rediscovery of herself --- something she thought she'd lost forever with the death of her first sweetheart, David, in the war --- and in her moral conflict and emotional daring, she emerges as a woman of tremendous complexity and heart.
As the personal story gathers momentum, the political context seems to lose some of its stage-set stiffness. Faulks's account of the campaign, debate and election night is genuinely thrilling, even though we know how it will come out. The scenes at Dien Bien Phu prefigure the war that nobody wanted and the flashbacks to World War II recall the savagery of the war that everybody seems to agree was necessary. There is a cosmic sadness to these events, as if Faulks and his melancholy heroes are grieving in advance for greater troubles to come.
Frank and Charlie monopolize the politics; Mary relates to the wider world almost exclusively through the two men. While that may be accurate in terms of the role women were expected to play 40 years ago, it splits the book down the middle: Faulks never quite manages to fuse his story of love and personal transformation with the currents of social change. Nonetheless, ON GREEN DOLPHIN STREET is an absorbing, sometimes transporting novel. Once I got off my "I was there" high horse, I realized that it captures much of the pace and music and swelling bohemianism of New York when I was young, as well as the mood of expectation that swept us: the country holding its breath, wondering what would happen next.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 22, 2011
On Green Dolphin Street