- - Friday, August 2, 2013

By Louis Begley
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $25.95, 188 pages

Elegant and cool are the adjectives that come to mind in reading one of Louis Begley’s beautifully crafted novels. Add a touch of sardonic irony. His latest, “Memories of a Marriage,” is no exception. The story moves through time and place, from the mid-20th century to the early-21st, from Newport to Paris to New York. The characters are upper-class New Englanders: successful lawyers, bankers, writers and rich, pampered women, none of them very likeable.

Much of the novel — such as Paris neighborhoods and streets, details of food and wine served at elegant little dinners in Paris or “simple” meals in country houses in the Hamptons and Connecticut, ideas exchanged and political discussions, names of well-known writers, artists and ambassadors — reflects Mr. Begley’s own experience. He sprinkles his tale with the ins and outs of life among the privileged. However, as Mr. Begley explained in a 2002 interview in the Paris Review, he never bares himself to his readers, but remains behind a screen.

Like his creator, the novel’s narrator, Philip, is a successful novelist and friend of the rich and powerful who remains behind his own screen. We know that he was born in Salem, owns a country house in Connecticut, mourns the death of his wife, Bella, and the earlier death of their little daughter, that he is lonely, and that he is a bit of a snob. We also discover that he is a voyeur, eager to listen to the erotic details of the memories of the marriage between Lucy de Bourgh, “the funny, original, devil-may-care girl [he] knew quite well in Paris” and Thomas Snow, who “was trim … and respectably taller than she, … had brown hair parted on the side and a nice face with regular features, and he wore a gray-flannel Brooks Brothers suit that was neither too big nor too small for him, and a blue button-down shirt just like everybody else’s.”

But Thomas was not like everybody else. The son of a Newport garage owner who fixed the cars of Lucy’s blue-blooded family and friends, he was intelligent, ambitious and a brilliant banker. He had gone to Harvard and made his way successfully from “townie” in Newport to become a rich member of the upper class in Manhattan. Everybody liked him.

The story begins as Philip runs into Lucy, now “a tall, slim lady in her late sixties or perhaps early seventies, strikingly good looking” during the intermission of a boring ballet evening at the Lincoln Center in New York, a friend he had not seen for many years. She suggests a drink and then an invitation to dinner at her apartment.

The chance meeting leads to a series of boozy dinners during which Lucy tells Philip the story of her marriage. Philip is shocked and fascinated by the change from the vibrant woman he had known to one exhibiting “the simmering anger that could at any moment, one felt, boil over as rage, resentment and bitterness, the potential for which I had not detected in her before.”

He is intrigued and sets out to find out why Lucy had “become humorless.”

“The rawness of her hostility toward Thomas, perhaps hatred, even though the guy had been dead since 1998, and they’d been divorced for at least twenty-five years, shocked and surprised me. What had he done to her? What had she done to him?” This was after all, the young woman who had told him that what she wanted in life was “To live! … To dare to live! … Wasn’t she an heiress of all the ages, duty-bound to take full advantage of her education … .” He was determined to understand how “the quirky but beautiful, charming, and seductive young woman I had known had changed so, had become an embittered and aggressive shrew.”

In the course of many drinks and dinners, Philip listens to her bitter account of the years of her marriage, how Thomas had used her, her money and position in society to further his own ends, how he neglected her and how in the end he walked out on her and their son, Jamie.

Since Thomas could not speak for himself as he had died in a swimming accident, Philip talks to Jamie, to Thomas’ second wife and some of his friends for their versions of what happened. A more complex picture emerges, including accounts of Lucy’s insensibility and sexual proclivities before and during the marriage.

“Certainly, Lucy’s money had made life in Boston and in New York much more comfortable in the early years. Certainly, [Thomas] had been able to savor guiltily and mostly in secret the sweetness of the de Bourghs’ historical importance and social position,” but he “did quite a lot of good — quietly because he was shy. He did no evil.” It becomes clear that they never should have married; that in fact, they did not really like one another.

There is, of course, no “ending,” in the traditional sense to the story. What creates the pleasure for the reader is the delicious details offered by Mr. Begley of the life and times in Paris and New York. He permits his readers to enter the world of privilege, the wood-paneled men’s clubs in New York, the expensive restaurants in Paris, the elegant houses and apartments of Newport and New York.

His characters are real — Thomas in his methodical ambition; Lucy in her hungry, narcissistic sexuality; Philip in his self-satisfied loneliness; all in their selfishness. Yet, thanks to Mr. Begley’s talented pen, we, like Philip, cannot resist becoming voyeurs in the erotic details of Lucy’s frank account of her sex life, fascinated by the details of this marriage, and, most of all, enjoying Philip’s caustic comments of the world around him.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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