"On Green Dolphin Street" by Sebastian Faulks

A wife drifts into adultery amid the smoky jazz joints and swank diplomatic parties of Kennedy-era Washington.

Published February 21, 2002 10:45PM (EST)

What happens to people after a war is finished with them? That's just one of the questions the English writer Sebastian Faulks asks, and answers, in his wrenchingly delicate novel "On Green Dolphin Street." Plenty of people have written novels of romance and intrigue set during World War II, and Faulks is one of them: His "The Girl at the Lion d'Or," "Birdsong" and "Charlotte Gray" are all set in wartime France.

"On Green Dolphin Street" isn't a continuation of that trilogy, but it is a story that sails forward in time to show how people's experiences of World War II shaped them forever. Some 15 years after its end, even after average Americans found themselves seemingly comfortably settled in a wonderland of TV sets and tailfins, the war continued to exert a subtle pull: The men couldn't forget its horrors; and the women's role, that of building a cozy cocoon of illusion to help their men mute the memories of those horrors, often came with its own price, too.

Set in 1960 New York and Washington, "On Green Dolphin Street" easily straddles the worlds of smoky jazz joints and swank suburban diplomatic parties. Mary Van der Linden is a nearing-40 Englishwoman who has recently moved to Washington from London with her two beloved children and her adoring husband, Charlie, who has a post with the British Embassy. Self-possessed and unquestionably grounded, as well as unswervingly tolerant and supportive of her sozzled, troubled spouse, Mary is hardly a likely candidate for an extramarital affair. And so, if for no other reason than because that's simply the way the world works, she's drawn into one, with a mysterious New York journalist named Frank Renzo. She doesn't fall easily, but she falls hard.

Many martinis are made and drunk in "On Green Dolphin Street," and not just by the one character, Charlie, who's a full-fledged alcoholic. Faulks captures the cheery, prefab excesses of early-'60s America, excesses that seemed calculated to fight off any residual desperation still lingering after the Second World War. "On Green Dolphin Street" is partly a political novel. Its centerpiece is the presidential race between Kennedy and Nixon, and Faulks gives us a clear-eyed snapshot of a specific time in America, a time when we unknowingly leapt the gulf between the cozy Eisenhower '50s and the uncertain but dazzling excitement of what the '60s, after the Kennedy assassination, would become.

But in "On Green Dolphin Street" Faulks is most interested in romance, or more specifically, in the exceedingly delicate inner workings of human relationships. Both Frank and Charlie carry residual guilt and anxiety for things they did and saw in combat; Mary (who herself lost her first love to the war) unhesitatingly takes on the role of soothing them both, in different ways. Her mere existence is a salve for them. But Faulks continually reinforces her capability, resolve and inner balance, keeping her from dissolving into a caricature of a '60s housewife. She's the least troubled of all the book's characters -- which may be why we grow to feel the most fiercely protective of her.

You could call "On Green Dolphin Street" a very manly book about one woman's most closely guarded secrets. Faulks can write evocative, deeply romantic scenes that steer way clear of sentimentality. He has such a light, deft touch that even his tangential, off-the-cuff observations can catch you up in their warmth, elegance and depth.

He understands, for one thing, that the happier the life you lead, the harder it is to deal with the betrayal of death. After Mary's mother dies, she and her father, James, are left to the sodden task of grieving, and Faulks doesn't sugarcoat it: "James could see that the future was a place without comfort, but it was not the future that concerned him; it was the past, which, like Mary, he felt had deceived him and only just revealed what down all the long years it had been planning. He had thought himself content in that expanse of time, had believed it to be his friend, but saw it now for what it had been all along: a smiler with a knife."

And Faulks is astute about the differences between men and women, but blessedly, he's not blindly obsessed with them. In "On Green Dolphin Street," the men cry more than the women, albeit privately. And although Mary is the book's central character, and the one whom Faulks treats most sensitively, his male characters never fall into hard-sided macho categories; they aren't afraid to delve into their own feelings. At one point Frank reflects that "if Mary should die, or leave him, or in some less dramatic way deprive him of her presence, he could neither recover from the loss of her nor deal with the unfulfilled capacity for love that she had created in him." It's a deeply romantic thought, but then, men can be deeply romantic creatures. Faulks is man enough to face up to it.

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By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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