The title of Nina de Gramont’s second novel for adults, The Christie Affair, has a double meaning. The first is Agatha Christie’s notorious disappearance in 1926, and the second is the affair her husband, Archie, is carrying on with Nan O’Dea (the real mistress’s name was Nancy Neele), the suspiciously omniscient narrator. But in the end, the story isn’t really about either of these affairs; it’s about motherhood.
A long list of authors has imagined what really went on when Christie left her husband and young daughter for 11 days in December 1926. In de Gramont’s telling, Christie’s leaving is prompted almost as much by her despair over her mother’s death as it is by her fury at her husband’s cheating. As for Nan, her life was blighted after being banished to a hellish Irish convent for “fallen” women when she became pregnant at 19. Nan’s baby daughter was taken from her, and her goal ever since has been to find her child, or get revenge, or both.
Tying Nan’s anguish with Christie’s disappearance is part of the book’s allure, but even a reader superficially familiar with the famous author’s biography can see that de Gramont’s novel is heavily fictionalized. Christie never discussed what she’d been up to those 11 days, not even with her own daughter, and this creates a lacuna for a novelist to fill up with some outlandish stuff. Indeed, at one point the story becomes a Christie-esque murder mystery: Who has poisoned that jolly newlywed couple in the hotel where Nan has chosen to hide out, and why?
Few of the characters are particularly likable in The Christie Affair, but all are fascinating. Archie is one of those entitled, upper-crust British military men who prides himself on not understanding the minds of women, children or even small dogs. Trauma has made Nan duplicitous. Christie, in her own way, is as arrogant as her husband. When she discovers that basically all of England is searching for her, she decides to extend her holiday a few more days and work on a new book. She figures her own 7-year-old daughter won’t mind, since she has a nanny.
Despite these liberties and embellishments, de Gramont doesn’t let her story stray too far from the basic facts, so the ending’s a bit of a letdown for Nan. Still, The Christie Affair is an enjoyable entrant to the canon of “Agatha Christie’s mysterious disappearance” novels.