In Edmund White's most moving novel yet, an American living in Paris finds his life transformed by an unexpected love affair.
Austin Smith is pushing fifty, loveless and drifting, until one day he meets Julien, a much younger, married Frenchman. In the beginning, the lovers' only impediments are the comic clashes of culture, age, and temperament. Before long, however, the past begins to catch up with them. In a desperate quest to save health and happiness, they move from Venice to Key West, from Montreal in the snow to Providence in the rain. But it is amid the bleak, baking sands of the Sahara that their love is pushed to its ultimate crisis.
In recent years, veteran novelist White (A Boy's Own Life; The Farewell Symphony) has turned to transatlantic themes (as in his biography of Genet). This Jamesian turn continues in the tale of Austin Smith, an expatriated scion of decayed Southern gentry, who lives on Ile Saint Louis, in Paris. Austin, an expert on 18th-century French furniture, is HIV positive but healthy when he becomes the lover of Julien, a married architect more than 20 years Austin's junior who is in the process of divorcing his wife. Throughout the first half of the novel, Austin maintains a protective distance, allowing him to see, all too clearly, Julien's pretensions and foibles. Austin keeps his HIV status secret from Julien until the latter gets the flu, which frightens Austin into a confession. When Austin gets a job teaching in Providence, R.I., he brings Julien with him. But a complication with Julien's visa, and Austin's restlessness, have the pair repeatedly flying back and forth between America and France. Meanwhile, Julien is diagnosed with AIDS, and his health disintegrates. The couple become a frustrated threesome when Austin feels responsible for a whiny, dim ex-lover named Peter, also dying of AIDS; Peter and Julien instantly detest each other. White's candor about the ways egotism is incompletely subsumed in love shows up in many wonderful touches; White illustrates perfectly, for example, the ways in which Austin's generosity to Julien and Peter, both much younger men, infantilizes them. His descriptions of Paris, Venice and Morocco are infused with an almost Matisse-like sensuality, but sometimes the author's evident intelligence seems wasted on his self-absorbed characters. In the perspicuity of White's art, however, even the vapid Julien, dying in Morocco, evokes pathos and terror, bestowing this love story with a classically tragic aura. BOMC featured selection; QPB selection; Reader's Subscription selection; to be featured in BOMC's new, as-yet-unnamed gay and lesbian book club.