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Lisbon In Books: The Two Hotel Francforts

It was actually quite a coincidence that I picked up this book… Wandering into the lovely Daunt Bookstore in London, which orders books by the place they are set in, I stumbled across The Two Hotel Francforts. The cover was intriguing, as it showed a couple in the 1940s on Rossio Square – a time that I find quite fascinating for all sorts of reasons (including the fact that my mother happened to be living in Lisbon at that time). Not knowing too much of the book (and the cover not being much of an enlightenment), I decided to give it a read – originally thinking it would be some sort of detective story or spy story, which seemed quite appropriate given the time it is set in.

Well.. I was pretty wrong: what the cover doesn’t give away is that it is actually very much a gay story, albeit of two married men, set in Lisbon. This came as a bit of a surprise to me – although the author has previously written extensively about this (and maybe I should read a review next time before starting to read a book… or does that spoil the fun?).

The basic premise is that two American couples meet in Lisbon. They are refugees fleeing the Nazis via the last open port in Europe – and by coincidence end up in the same café, though living in two very different, but named the same, hotels in Lisbon (yes, there actually were two hotels Francfort in Lisbon – see here for more information and pictures [in Portuguese]).
Just when I wondered where the plot was heading (still expecting a few spies to pop up), on a “boys night out”, the two husband start an affair – all against the backdrop of both couples trying to secure passage out of Lisbon and to America with their wives – and not entirely happy to leave the old continent behind.

I’m not trying to give too much of the plot away, only to say, it does take a lot of unexpected turns. But it is not just the love (or sex?) story that is intriguing and well written… it is also the backdrop of 1940s Lisbon live among people trying to escape – and the description of the atmosphere surrounding this extraordinary situation and time in this city.

As you might expect, this book is not much about Portuguese – nor does it venture much beyond the refugee circles and their life, as none of the characters interacts with locals. Of course, this is very much the story line, and although this could be read as somewhat disappointing, it would only be so if you expect a character study of the Portuguese. Don’t expect much in terms of local habits or local psyche… even Salazar and his policies only appear in very small doses. If you see the book as an atmospheric description of life as (very wealthy) refugees in this strange neutral country – then you will love it… if you happen to read it in Lisbon, you’ll be even more intrigued as it talks about some of the places which are still here, taking into account how they were at that time. For example, there is a lot of talk about Pastelaria Suiça… the way the author talks about it is very much how my mother talked about it. If you look at what I’d call one of the worst tourist traps on Rossio square today, you wonder why anyone would want to be there – but those were different times, and the author does well in reviving them.

Overall, if you are interested in any of these:
– Lisbon in the 1940s
– wealthy people fleeing the Nazis
…or just want to read a gay (I’m not sure I’d call it love-)story…
this is your book. If all three interest you – you’ll have trouble putting the book down.
And although it had no murders and spies, as I originally thought, I definitely enjoyed reading it tremendously.

David Leavitt (2013), The Two Hotels Francfort, New York: Bloomsbury USA