The Swiss Affair
A year abroad in college can be a truly transformative experience. New food to taste. New languages to learn. New friendships to form with coeds from all over the world. A new place and culture in which to experiment and discover who you were and who you want to become in the future. Anything can happen when you’re far away from home: the good, the bad, and, if you’re unluckier than most, the very ugly.
With a title like THE SWISS AFFAIR, Emylia Hall’s second novel (after THE BOOK OF SUMMERS), one might expect the plot to fall fully into the “good” category --- and to go something like this: Girl trades in boring university at home for a year of excitement and adventure in a foreign country. Girl is homesick but soon meets a gallant young man who whisks her off her feet, frolicking and gallivanting to their mutual hearts’ content. Girl’s life is forever changed. Girl returns home a different person than the one she was when she left.
One might expect that, but one would be wrong. Sort of.
"Hall successfully captures the essence of what it’s like to muddle through loss. Above all, she has penned a page-turner full of wanderlust, forbidden romance, and plenty of intrigue."
In a move mirroring Hall’s own year abroad in La Suisse, sophomore Hadley Dunn leaves her humbug hometown of Tonridge to study literature in Lausanne, a storybook town overlooking Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. From the moment she arrives, Hadley is taken with the quaint scenery. “The cathedral reached for the sky with five points, and a castle perched in the middle of the twisting streets, as perfect as a chess piece. Turn-of-the-century apartment buildings, majestic and comely and pouting with balconies, sat alongside pastel-painted low-rises. Beyond the tumbling rooftops lay the dazzling water of Lac Leman with the French Alps like a concertina behind, spike after spike after spike…” Here, and throughout the book, Hall’s picturesque descriptions do the town justice.
But Hadley’s experience doesn’t just consist of lazy afternoons spent in Guidebook-worthy cozy cafés with friends, drinking mulled wine and munching on cheese fondue. While she does flit from place to place with her fellow housemates --- particularly Kristina, the vivacious and beautiful Danish girl who lives in the room next door --- there’s also a darker side to her story that involves a man (or, to avoid any sort of spoiler, three). There’s Jacques, Kristina’s mysterious (married) lover whom she met in the Riviera. There’s Hugo, an ex-writer turned old codger with a permanent seat at the end of the bar Hadley frequents. And then there’s Joel, Hadley’s dashing American literature professor who takes a special interest in Hadley --- one that extends beyond the papers she writes about Hemingway. Wink wink.
Just as Hadley is wrapped up in clandestine thoughts about her illustrious professor and Kristina grows ever more cagey regarding her attempts to rendezvous with Jacques, disaster strikes. Kristina is killed by a hit-and-run driver, and Hadley is left to piece together what actually happened --- including finding out Jacques’s identity in order to give him the tragic news. When Hadley turns to Joel --- and, to a different extent, Hugo --- to help get a handle on her grief, what transpires next is over and above anything she could’ve expected. Depending on how astute a reader you are, the plot twist might be stranger than you think.
Though some of the language used to describe Hadley’s heartache might seem canned at times (Hadley’s opinions about the happy people she sees in the days following Kristina’s death: “What had they done to deserve to carry on living? And did they know, as she now knew, that it could all be snapped out at any moment?” Joel’s advice: “Eventually we’ll always find a way to live with it. And that’s the best thing and the worst thing about it.”), the emotions fueling the words are nonetheless real, and Hall successfully captures the essence of what it’s like to muddle through loss. Above all, she has penned a page-turner full of wanderlust, forbidden romance, and plenty of intrigue. For those who are interested, the tidbits of Hemingway trivia throughout the book are an added bonus.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on February 14, 2014