On Green Dolphin Street, an intriguing new novel by best-selling British author Sebastian Faulks, is a love story set in America, 1960. When Frank Renzo meets Mary van der Linden, she appears to be the epitome of the affable helpmate for her husband, Charlie, a British diplomat. If she lacks anything, it might be a long dormant sense of life's transcendancy which Renzo, a New York reporter, somehow stirs within her.
Charlie, disguising simmering troubles of his own, unwittingly encourages their friendship. Thus Frank and Mary are able to begin their liaison in New York, eventually forcing them to confront the central dilemma of the novel: love or duty? In telling this story, Faulks employs his own experience as a journalist. He accumulates a wealth of descriptive detail; his settings including Greenwich Village, London, Moscow and in flashback, Dien Bien Phu, in Vietnam are all keenly rendered. He also makes interesting observations about such far-flung topics as Nixon, diplomatic speech and the FBI.
Faulks' special focus, though, is on the sadness, the endings, that cling stain-like to his characters' lives. Mary, Frank and Charlie live with memories of World War II (in which Charlie and Frank served) and an apprehensiveness toward the Cold War. This lends Frank and Mary's affair an almost moral urgency. This anxiety contributes, too, to a breakdown Charlie suffers in Moscow, an event that further complicates Mary's life.
Faulks' unhurried manner and elaborate prose eventually work their magic: the story and its characters elicit both sympathy and respect. Take Charlie's moment of clarity as he ponders life through the prism of literature: "It might seem to glow with a little of that borrowed luster: it might seem after all to be charged with some transcendant value." On Green Dolphin Street is also the title of a Miles Davis jazz tune that Frank plays for Mary. It becomes for her, symbolic of the pathway to an exciting life one suffused with richness and purpose, if only temporarily.
Harold Parker is a writer in Gallatin, Tennessee.