In The Two Hotel Francforts, novelist David Leavitt (The Indian Clerk) takes his readers right to the brink: to the edge of continental Europe and a war that for many seemed like the end of civilization itself.

The novel is set in 1940s Lisbon, the last neutral port in Europe, overflowing with refugees of every nationality. Among the crowd are American expatriates Pete and Julia Winters. The Winters have been living in Paris, where Pete is a car salesman, but are planning to return to New York because Julia is Jewish. Neurotic even at the best of times, Julia is adamant about not leaving Europe, despite the danger—and even though everything about Portugal, from the food to the accommodations, makes her desperately unhappy. The Winters meet Edward and Iris Freleng, who are traveling with their elderly fox terrier. The Frelengs write mystery novels published under a single pseudonym, and their lazy, somewhat bohemian spirit and careless debauchery draw the American couple closer. A kind of strange ennui born of waiting amid the life-threatening tension prevails, and when Edward instigates an affair with Pete, everything threatens to unravel, including the sanity of both Julia and Edward.

The cobwebbed world of half-truths and lies inhabited by these characters is echoed by the shadowy setting of wartime Lisbon. Portugal’s neutrality masks the unsettling politics of the Salazar government, just as the couples’ untethered lives hide a hollow core at the center of each marriage. Like authors Graham Greene or Ford Madox Ford, Leavitt suggests that the moral ambiguities let loose during the pressures of wartime push people to extremes that they might never have reached otherwise.

Leavitt’s setting may be unsavory, but his storytelling is not, with complex characters and rich details that bring the seedy hotels and crowded cafes to life. This is a brittle tale told with an effortless ease.

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