An Unexpected Guest
By Anne Korkeakivi
Little, Brown (2012)
Anne Korkeakivi’s An Unexpected Guest was an unexpected pleasure. I first encountered the book at Costco, where the striking cover photograph of a Paris apartment building caught my eye. I read the synopsis on the back cover and thought it sounded intriguing, but the references to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway put me off somewhat. I put the book on my mental “check it out” list for possible reading later.
I went home and read the customer reviews on Amazon and was still hesitant. A day in the life of a diplomat’s wife, as she prepares to host an important dinner? Sounded a little static. But then I encountered the author on Twitter and liked her. So I decided I needed to read my new “friend’s” novel. I’m glad I changed my mind.
An Unexpected Guest turned out to be a remarkably well-written novel and a spellbinding read. The guest I was reluctant to invite ended up being both charming and a provocative conversationalist.
Clare Moorhouse is the wife of a high-ranking American diplomat based in Paris. They are more or less happily married, although Claire is holding on tightly to a secret from the days before her marriage to Edward, an Englishman with whom she has two sons, one in college and one, Jamie, at a private boarding school in England. She has adapted to the life of a diplomat and loves Paris. When the ambassador falls ill, Edward is asked at the last minute to host a small dinner at the Moorhouse residence. Clare snaps into action, the complete professional, to prepare for all aspects of this important dinner. It seems that Edward is in line for an ambassadorship of his own, and the decision may well hang in the balance. Therein lies Conflict #1. Can Clare throw everything together with the help of her curmudgeonly but gifted cook, Mathilde, and staff members like the inexperienced Amelie?
Conflict #2 involves the ambassadorship itself. Although Clare wants to see Edward make this prestigious move, which he richly deserves, she is panicked about the destination: Ireland. For the secret she has been hiding for 25 years involves Ireland and her first serious lover, Niall. She has been carrying her guilt for her entire marriage and desperately fears having it revealed to Edward or, God forbid, the general public. Personal humiliation (not to mention damage to Edward’s career) is one thing, but prison is another thing entirely.
So, as Clare hurriedly but methodically prepares for the evening’s dinner, she revisits the mistakes of her naive younger self that led her to a passionate relationship with Niall and a brief trip to Dublin in the mid-1980s. The third conflict arises in the form of trouble at school for Jamie. After several phone calls home, Jamie himself shows up to complicate Clare’s already challenging day. What exactly happened at the Barrow School? Just how many poor decisions did Jamie make, and why? Can Clare resolve the situation without disturbing a very preoccupied Edward?
With her hands full, Clare moves through her day, trying to solve problems large and small. The narrative moves back and forth in time from the day of the dinner to her meeting with Niall, a distant cousin who is staying with her Aunt Elaine, twenty-five summers earlier in Boston and their ensuing relationship.
A final wrench is thrown into the works when Clare is accosted by an obviously foreign man, sweating feverishly and asking for help reading a map with the address of a medical clinic. Clare hesitates, thinking at first that this rough-looking, stocky man in a cheap leather jacket is going to kidnap her. She helps him on his way and is soon on her own way as well, a good deed done. Right? Not necessarily, as she learns later that afternoon. Her instincts about the man’s background prove correct, though the details are shockingly different than a mere kidnapping of a diplomat’s wife.
The strengths of An Unexpected Guest are many. It is a character study of Clare Moorhouse, a woman as multi-faceted as a diamond. Korkeakivi brilliantly explores the various ways the past continues to live inside us — and occasionally outside us, to be experienced as well by those around us. As William Faulkner once famously wrote, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” The mere mention of Ireland brings Clare’s past to vivid, threatening life — an unexpected guest taking up residence in her heart and mind. Jamie’s arrival at the Residence, fleeing from trouble of his own in England, constitutes another unexpected guest. And the man on the street is yet another “guest,” all thrust into her already complicated day.
So what at first appeared to be a tepid cup of tea about a day in the life of an American diplomat’s wife in Paris turns out to be a percolating pot of strong French Roast. As with most people, Clare’s inner life is much more complex than anyone — perhaps even her husband — suspects. What happened in Dublin all those years ago when the idealistic 20-year-old Clare did a favor for Niall? Why does she keep seeing Niall, who is long dead, in the crowded Paris streets as she runs errands? How will she solve the problem of Jamie’s repeated errors in judgment at school? Will the dinner go well enough not to impede Edward’s chances of being appointed Ambassador to Ireland? And if he is appointed, will Clare be able to return to Dublin, with its ghosts from her past?
I think novelist George Hagen (The Laments) summarizes An Unexpected Guest well when he says, “Anne Korkeakivi’s writing has all the best qualities of an Ishiguro novel [Remains of the Day]. Clare…unravels before us into a woman of dangerous allegiances, passions, and moral dilemmas, in prose that is both beautiful and razor sharp.” This is a novel that is well worth the reader’s time. It is a thought-provoking, cleverly-structured, and remarkably well-written examination of one woman’s complicated life, with all its entanglements in the past and the present.
You talked me into this one–it’s been sitting near the top of my pile and looks like a book I’d enjoy, too! Thanks for an excellent review.
I’m glad you liked the review enough to read the book, Sue. I liked it much better than I expected to. It’s not as slow and internal as some people make it sound. Clare interacts with people throughout the day, and her flashbacks take us to other periods and events in her life. In that sense, I liked it more than Mrs. Dalloway. Sometimes the tribute is a better read than the original, even if the latter is groundbreaking.
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