Louis Begley's latest novel, SHIPWRECK, is a tour de force that captures the madness of a high-profile author caught in a torrid affair with another woman.
John North, Begley's protagonist in SHIPWRECK, seems to have it all. He has just been awarded one of literature's top prizes and he has an adoring wife. For the most part, North is living the American dream --- that is until one day in Paris when he begins to question the value of his work while waiting for a writer from Vogue magazine.
Lea, the young journalist, is immediately starstruck with North's presence and decides he must become another addition to her long list of conquests. Meanwhile North, who is old enough to be Lea's father, is completely smitten with the leggy French vixen and sparks begin to fly.
While it appears that North narrates SHIPWRECK while downing shot after shot of whiskey inside a mysterious Parisian café with another person, it doesn't take too long for the reader to realize that North is actually alone. Ultimately Begley, author of the highly acclaimed novel ABOUT SCHMIDT, allows the reader to decide whether or not North is talking to himself --- and that's the brilliance of this mesmerizing story.
Begley does a wonderful job portraying North's wife Lydia as the ultimate victim of his extramarital activities. North cheats on his wife throughout the novel with Lea, but he doesn't deny for a second that his adulterous behavior is wrong. Even while North enjoys the numerous trysts with Lea, he never stops thinking about his wife and realizes from the onset of the affair that he's headed for troubled waters.
Not only is North grappling with the realization that he's in over his head with the affair, he is also constantly questioning the value of his literary career. In some respects, SHIPWRECK is about more than just an acclaimed author dealing with an obsessed sexpot.
Begley delves into the issue of adultery --- how the French view it as compared to American social values. North also is dealing with a bout of alcoholism throughout the book, although his overindulgence with the bottle is again presented as an afterthought in an effort not to stray the reader from the true essence of the novel. But here again, Begley's brilliance as a writer is apparent as he illustrates to the reader that North uses alcohol frequently as medication.
In addition to the social ramifications, SHIPWRECK is also steamy and suspenseful. You can picture SHIPWRECK as a film, equipped with a star-studded cast similar to About Schmidt.
Reviewed by David Exum on January 23, 2011