It is a brave writer who would all but invite readers to compare her first novel to those of a master. With Loving Graham Greene, Gloria Emerson does just that, and by and large her gamble pays off. Her fiction debut set in a foreign locale with a plot that hinges on the clash of cultures and good intentions gone awry is the kind of story that Greene himself might have written. And Emerson, an accomplished journalist best-known for her Vietnam-era book Winners & Losers, proves a deft enough novelist to weather the inevitable comparisons with the great English writer. The spirit of Graham Greene permeates and propels the book both metaphorically and literally.
The main character, Molly Benson, is a minor heiress who met Greene once in Antibes and carried on a correspondence with him in the years just before his death. A liberal, wealthy woman who craves purpose, Molly parcels out her money to good causes and travels to far flung war zones to ameliorate human rights violations. She is inspired by Greene's moral anger, but she lacks his insight into the human complexity of the Third World, a failing that will have disastrous repercussions by story's end.
To honor Greene after his death, Molly orchestrates a mission to Algiers, where she plans to bring financial and political support to some outlawed Algerian writers. Molly and her foolhardy friends blunder through their misguided mission and, before returning unscathed to their privileged lives, leave a muddle in their wake, with dire consequences for a number of innocent bystanders.
Emerson is not simply trying to emulate Greene, of course, and while she clearly admires his work, she is well aware of the foolish, ultimately dangerous aspects of Molly's idolatry. Indeed, the way in which she casts a cold eye on her characters calls to mind the emotionally stark novels of Joan Didion more than the more humanistic books of Greene. Either way, that's awfully good company for a first-time novelist to keep.
Los Angeles-based writer Robert Weibezahl considers Graham Greene's The End of the Affair one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.