On Green Dolphin Street

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Overview

Focusing on a richly significant time in our recent past, Sebastian Faulks, the bestselling author of Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, has written his first novel set in America. The year is 1960—a fascinating moment of transition in our country, when the comfortable Eisenhower years were drawing to a close and the ruthlessly competitive Nixon/Kennedy presidential campaign signaled the beginning of a starkly different decade.

Mary van der Linden ...
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On Green Dolphin Street

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Overview

Focusing on a richly significant time in our recent past, Sebastian Faulks, the bestselling author of Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, has written his first novel set in America. The year is 1960—a fascinating moment of transition in our country, when the comfortable Eisenhower years were drawing to a close and the ruthlessly competitive Nixon/Kennedy presidential campaign signaled the beginning of a starkly different decade.

Mary van der Linden has recently moved from London to Washington, D.C., with her two children and her loving, admired husband, Charlie, who is posted to the British Embassy. Nearly forty, Mary has spent a lifetime as a loyal daughter, wife and mother. But in this year of so much change, she feels compelled to break away from her familiar world and is drawn to the freedom of New York City, which is effervescent with parties, jazz, three- martini lunches, girls in their summer dresses and men in their Sinatra hats and big ties. Greenwich Village is still charmingly bohemian, and Miles Davis’s hit tune “On Green Dolphin Street” is playing everywhere. Mary finds a hotel room in New York and then finds a lover, while back in Washington her husband drinks to forget the demands of his job, the absence of his wife and the Cold War paranoia that has overtaken the capital.

Faulks breaks new ground with this novel: It is a love story, not a war story, and it is set in America rather than France. Yet readers of his two previous bestselling novels will recognize the close focus of the historical setting, the unforgettable characters and the gathering emotional power of the narrative. On Green Dolphin Streetis a dramatic, tremendously moving novel that is certain to extend the American audience for this prodigiously talented author’s work.
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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
In a culture that worships adolescence, this wonderful novel, set in the 1960s, makes being a grown-up seem enviable, stylish, seductive. Mary Van der Linden is the wife of Charlie, a career diplomat stationed in Washington, D.C. At one of the couple's high-spirited parties, a journalist named Frank Renzo stays late discussing jazz with Charlie while surreptitiously glancing at Mary, who in an evening has captivated him. She is the chaste product of affectionate, sensible parents, happy enough in her marriage, yet she succumbs to Frank's passion. Together they experience what is summed up by a phrase that recurs in Faulks' work: the "sweetness and density of life." Their inconvenient liaison leads them to rendezvous in New York in bookstores, jazz clubs and the dim, ratty bars Frank loves. Mary dresses with a care and propriety that are in themselves erotic, so deliberately does she weigh and anticipate her lover's interest. They treat each other gravely, decently, but with an all-consuming hunger to know and be known, which is very like the way Faulks treats his subject matter. This is a joyous book with a glow of pleasure—not merely of sensuality—about two people awake to their lives and offering each other the best that is in them.
—Penelope Mesic

Publishers Weekly
Jazz fans may recognize the title of this tepid novel about a love triangle set in 1960, but the reference (to a 1960 Miles Davis hit) will do little to enhance their appreciation of this disappointing work, the fifth novel from British writer Faulks (Birdsong; The Girl at the Lion d'Or; Charlotte Gray). Moving away from his trademark early 20th-century French settings, the writer tries out his meticulous brand of melancholy romance on mid-20th-century America. Charles van der Linden, a British diplomat posted to Washington, is in a serious slump: his investments are losing money, political suspicions poison his career and he increasingly turns to alcohol for solace. His gentle wife, Mary, is holding things together, but when the couple's two children must be sent to school in England, she finds herself at a loose end. On a visit to New York, she is shown the sights by newspaper reporter Frank Renzo, and the two embark on a passionate affair. The outline of the story is unremarkable, but it does have dramatic potential: will Mary leave her disaffected, alcoholic husband and her beloved children to join her soul mate Frank in his quasi-bohemian Greenwich Village life? But Faulks doesn't generate the intensity he is known for, relying instead on unconvincing interior monologues and flashbacks to flesh out the three characters. He has clearly done his homework on the period details of current events abound, along with minute descriptions of what the characters eat, drink and smoke but the descriptions are just filler. The novel feels unformed and inert, with reportage substituting for imagination, and never reveals the heart-wrenching power that characterized Birdsong. 10-city author tour. (Jan. 15) Forecast: Birdsong and Charlotte Gray were bestsellers, but Faulks's latest effort looks unlikely to hit the charts, despite (or because of) its American setting. Faulks's earlier books, however, will soon get a boost: film adaptations of Charlotte Gray (to be released in the U.S. in early 2002 and starring Cate Blanchett) and Birdsong (unscheduled) are forthcoming. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Having made it big in America with Charlotte Gray, a New York Times best seller, British novelist Faulks sets his new novel here. The heroine accompanies her diplomat husband to Washington, DC, in the cheerful Fifties, then finds her world upended as the Age of Aquarius dawns. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Faulks (The Girl at the Lion d'Or and Charlotte Gray, both 1999, etc.) seeks new ground by setting his latest in the US during the Nixon-JFK election campaign of 1960-with results that reveal his powerful command of story-drive but skirt closer than usual to the familiar and melodramatic.
From the Publisher
“The best novelist of his generation.” –Allan Massie, Scotsman

Praise for Birdsong:
“A lyrical masterpiece.” –The Edmonton Journal

“A brilliant, harrowing tale of love and war…engrossing, moving, and unforgettable…. So powerful, you long to call it perfect.” –The Times (UK)

Of Charlotte Gray:

“A beautifully-told tale... Faulks throws fascinating new light on the nature of French ‘collaboration’ with the Nazis, and throws the ideals of artistic creativity and the realities of the death camps into wrenching juxtaposition.” –The Vancouver Sun

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780099436935
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/23/2002
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 4.31 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Sebastian Faulks is best known for his trilogy of novels set in France: The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Birdsong, and Charlotte Gray, the latter two of which were bestsellers. After a period in France, he and his family now live in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The van der Lindens’ house was distinguished from the others on the street by the creeper that covered half the front, running up to the children’s rooms beneath the eaves, where at night the glow from the sidewalk lamp gave to Number 1064 the depth and shadow of a country settlement, somewhere far away from this tidy urban street. Among the row of new Cadillacs, their tail fins glinting like a rumor of sharks, Charlie van der Linden’s two-tone 1953 Kaiser Manhattan, maroon with a cream roof and a dented rear fender, struck a doubtful, out-of-town note.

The house dominated its plot, the architect having sacrificed half the backyard to the status two extra rooms would bring a man. The lawn that remained was part paved, with a brick barbecue and a basketball hoop left by a previous tenant; at the end of the grass was a child’s metal swing which Charlie had assembled after a summer cookout, to the amusement of his children, who had left it to rust unused. Where its neighbors sank their near-identical roots into the earth, this house gave off an air of transience; and when at night the bedroom lights went off along the street, like candles on an old man’s cake, the lamps in the van der Lindens’ house would often start to blaze again as a party spilled into another room. The guests’ cars were parked along the street as far as Number 1082, home to the Washington correspondent of a French magazine that no one had ever seen.

In their rooms, Louisa and Richard stirred occasionally in their sleep as a shriek of mirth came up the stairs or the gesture of some exuberant raconteur sent a glass shattering on the tiledfloor of the hall. If the party wore on too long, Mary would go upstairs to check on them, leaning across their beds, fussing over the blankets and tucking them in; sometimes in the morning the children had a memory of her scent, lipstick, gin, and words of love pressed into their ears and sealed with the touch of her fingers.

That December evening, the van der Lindens were having a party. It was to be their last of the decade and it marked the anniversary of their wedding eleven years earlier in London. It was a change for them to have a private pretext; it was a relief not to have to feign interest in a visiting dignitary, a national day or a harassed politician who was passing through Washington in a daze, uttering solemn pleasantries. The guests were a favored variation of the regular diplomats and journalists; there were one or two neighbors, either the most genial or the ones who would otherwise complain; there was also Weissman, Charlie’s doctor, and his Haitian bride.

“To Scottish national day,” said Charlie, flushed and off-duty as he unscrewed a bottle of scotch and poured three fingers of it over ice for Edward Renshaw, his closest ally at the British Embassy. “Tell me, how’s your economy doing these days?”

“It’s a wreck. Chin-chin.”

Mary van der Linden stood in the sitting room, her dark hair alive in the electric glow of the table lamp behind her. Her doting brown eyes returned to Charlie. Here was the fountain of her happiness, her repeated glances seemed to suggest: erratic, flawed, but, in his way, dependable. Mary’s smile was not a thing anyone could predict; she was not the diplomatic wife in all circumstances. To begin with, she was too shy and found each function a trial of her resolve, but she seemed to have a resource of contentment that was stable, beyond the irritation of the day, and when her smile came from that depth, her face was lit with such serenity that people stopped for a moment to watch.

In the kitchen, Dolores, the resident Puerto Rican maid provided by the Embassy, was cutting Wisconsin cheddar into cubes, then impaling them, with olives, onto plastic cocktail sticks. With these and dishes of pretzels, nuts and clam dip with saltine crackers, she loaded another tray and squeezed her way through the hall.

Charlie put a samba record on the phonograph, took a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket and inhaled the smoke as he gazed upon his party. His face, though flushed by broken capillaries and patchily shaved beneath the chin, retained some youthful beauty; his rumpled hair and sagging tie gave him a schoolboy look that the creeping fleshiness about his jaw had not quite dispelled. He saw Mary, now in the doorway to the hall, and smiled at her. It was a complicit smile which acknowledged the joint effort that their days consisted of—the compromises of the guest list, their shared jokes and fears about this man’s wife and that man’s drinking; the daily division of irksome duties, the labor of managing children and the pleasure of having dispatched them, just in time, to bed. Charlie van der Linden was in trouble, not just with his health, but with his life; yet as he caught his wife’s eye he felt he could postpone a reckoning indefinitely, that three more glasses of scotch, a quiet weekend in the rustic inns of the Shenandoah Valley and maybe some hard thinking would see him clear.

“Who’s that man talking to Mary?” Charlie felt his elbow taken by Edward Renshaw.

“He’s a journalist, I think. I bumped into him this morning at the Spanish Embassy do and he claims we’ve met before somewhere.”

“Let’s go and say hello.”

“Eddie,” said Mary, “this is Frank Renzo. Frank’s in town for a few days.”

“Good to meet you.” Frank Renzo was a tall, lean man, his cropped hair showing the first dust of gray; his accent was from the Midwest, perhaps Chicago.

“Do you need a drink, Frank?” said Charlie.

“No, I already have one.”

“What are you doing in town?” said Edward Renshaw politely.

“Just a piece for my paper. I’m based in New York.”

“Well, enjoy yourself,” said Charlie. “Call if we can do anything to help.”

Mary watched as Charlie left the small group and went toward the bar he had set up in the corner of the room. Normally they hired a barman from the Embassy staff to stand behind the row of liquor bottles, but tonight, as a small gesture of economy, Charlie had taken the task on himself. He scooped more ice cubes into the ornamental bucket from a pail concealed beneath the tablecloth.

“They say the Kennedys are buying a new house on N Street,” said the man from the Post. “Martha knows the Realtor who showed them around. Apparently Jackie was crazy for it.”

“Oh yes?” Charlie poured bourbon over ice and heard it snap. “I thought they were buying Joe Alsop’s.” He felt the scotch beginning to take hold, or rather to relax his grip, as he approached the state of uncritical bonhomie he most enjoyed. He smiled to himself. It was of course an irony that only in these moments of inebriation, these instants of perfect balance, did he have the philosophical poise to see his difficulties in their true perspective and to know that he could one day banish them. For the moment he was alive, and he glowed with the pleasure of these people’s company. At bad times he suspected that the fire was not renewable, that, for their delectation, he was burning away the core of himself; he feared that few of them shared his embrace of the minute, or were even momentarily diverted by his defiance of pettiness and tedium and time passing. He had never reached the lowest point of all, at which he might have wondered whether there was something morbid in his being so solitary in his flight from an unnamed terror.

Feeling as good as he did, generosity surging in his veins, tobacco unfurling in his lungs, he had no choice but to push onward.

“We meet on Wednesdays after we’ve taken the kids to school,” Lauren Williams was telling Frank Renzo. “Then for lunch Kelly makes the appetizer, Mary-Beth or I do the entrée and Katy does the dessert. She does the best desserts you ever tasted.”

“And you always have a project?”

“Sure. Sometimes we just have a book we’ve all read, sometimes we’ll go see a show.”

“And is that all the ladies in your group?”

“Oh, no, there’s more. That’s just the inner circle. We’re usually seven or eight. Mary comes along pretty often.”

“And what does she do?”

“You mean, like, what’s her specialty? Well, she brings wine sometimes. You know, coming from Europe. I don’t know.” Lauren Williams began to laugh. “Katy, what does Mary bring to our group?”

“Mary?” Katy Renshaw, too, looking at Frank’s grave face, began to laugh. “I guess she brings culture. Isn’t that right, Mary?”

“Isn’t what right?” said Mary, turning from another conversation.

“In fact,” said Lauren Williams, “Mary’s writing a book.”

“Am I?”

“Charlie always says you are.”

“He has to find an explanation for me.”

Mary went with a tray out into the kitchen, where Dolores was stirring a pan.

“Happy, Dolores?”

“Yes, thank you, Mrs. van der Linden. You happy?”

Mary considered, as she leaned back for a moment with her back to the stove and sipped from the glass of gin and tonic with its clashing ice. Happy . . .

When Louisa was twenty months old, she could talk with the fluency of a child of three or four, yet what was in her mind was quite unformed. On the Home Service in London she had heard the stations of the shipping forecast and talked back to them, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, her head cocked to one side, her concentration earnest. In moments of exalted love, of rapture, Mary believed Louisa’s mind was not empty, but filled with clouds of glory from a previous and purer world. She had spent many weeks in hospital with Louisa while doctors tried to discover the source of some violent allergy. When they eventually came home, they were seldom out of the same room. At bath time, while Mary lay back in the water, the child stood hammering at her mother’s raised and closed knees, demanding to be let into the castle that would be formed by their parting. Once inside, she would ask questions about things that puzzled her: America, for instance: how big it was, how far, how different and then, after a long, considering pause: “Do they have children in America?” Now, at ten years old, she had retained that unworldly grace, though she had been bruised by some encounters with the everyday that would have left no mark on others.

Richard, her brother, felt no such pain. To begin with, Mary had worried that she could not love a second child as much. He was so different from his sister that she was astounded to concede that he had eventually quarried out a comparable place in her affections for himself; by brute persistence he commandeered a territory as rare and irreplaceable as that occupied by Louisa. Perhaps it was the smell of him that first intoxicated Mary, of his neck along the hairline when she lifted him from his cot on her return from an evening out: the faint aroma of honey, calico, half-baked bread, wild strawberries, of warmth itself, was so delightful to inhale that she made excuses to “resettle” him, though it was clear that he was already as tranquil as a sleeping child could be. His fierceness was the opposite of Louisa’s detached and dreamlike curiosity; he wanted the same lunch each day, the same program on the wireless and then, at the same hour, to visit the bathroom where he would sit on the wooden seat, the cat clamped beneath his arm while, with tears rolling over his cheeks, he sang “The Camptown Races.”

Happy, thought Mary, as she folded the apron over the back of the chair and straightened her hair in the mirror over the kitchen counter: maybe not exactly happy, not in the facile way the word itself suggested, but who in these circumstances could not at least be touched from time to time by the ridiculous joy of existing?

Back in the sitting room, beneath the simmering layer of fresh cigarette smoke, Duncan Trench was stabbing his finger at Katy Renshaw, Edward’s American wife. Trench’s huge, slabbed cheeks and small eyes gave him what people called a chub-face, though the color of his complexion always reminded Mary not of fish but of undercooked beef.

“If the Negroes in North Carolina want to sit at the lunch counters all day without being served,” he was saying, “then the storekeeper is quite entitled to use reasonable force to evict them. They’re preventing him from making a living.”

Few people knew what Trench’s job in Chancery entailed, but his manner was seldom diplomatic.

“Sure,” said Frank Renzo, “and he’s preventing them from having lunch.”

“There are plenty of other places they can go.”

“But they want to go to Woolworth’s. They like the sixty-five-cent turkey dinner. You ever try it?”

“No, but that’s not the point. What I’m saying is—”

“You should. It needs some gravy. But, you know, it’s pretty good.”

“By refusing to move they’re preventing customers being served.”

“But they are the customers.”

“You know what I mean.”

Mary could see Duncan Trench’s color go from beef to borscht as she moved swiftly into the group.

“Who’d like another drink?” she said. “Duncan, have you met Kelly Eberstadt? She and her husband have moved into Bethesda and—”

“Did you ever hear of a young man named Emmett Till?” said Frank.

“I don’t believe so,” said Trench, as Mary took his elbow and guided him away.

“You’d have liked him. Your kinda guy.” Frank Renzo watched Trench depart; Katy Renshaw stared down at her shiny shoes for a moment.

“Well,” said Katy, looking up brightly again. “Qué será, será.”

“Nice song.”

“Nice movie. You like Doris Day?”

“Sure I like Doris Day, though I guess I like jazz even better,” said Frank.

Copyright 2002 by Sebastian Faulks
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Reading Group Guide

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“A romance full of luminous insights, brimming with feeling and paced to perfection. . . . No contemporary author writes with more power, more eloquent simplicity.” —San Francisco Chronicle

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Sebastian Faulks’s On Green Dolphin Street. We hope they will enrich your discussion of this deeply romantic novel set in 1960s America, when the Cold War was raging, the civil rights movement was gathering strength, and the growing fear of communism was about to lure the United States into war in Vietnam.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2003

    Great-But Not Perfect

    This was the first novel by Faulks that I read. It's surprisingly entertaining throughout, giving much in details of the year 1960. The ending, however, leaves something to be desired.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2003

    Good take-off - no landing!

    "On Green Dolphon Street", had the potential to get you in just as "Birdsong" had with its intense descriptive and interesting break down of the first two characters (Mary and Charlie). However it never goes any where remarkable. So they have an affair....who cares?? The descriptive period work is compelling but it is only F's skilled writing style that keeps you reading. You fail to care for the characters after about chapter three. Was this a "contracted novel"? I felt there was no punch, no soul as were in his last two novels. Still I did enjoy it enough to finish it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2003

    A wonderful read!

    Make sure to have plenty of time when you start reading this book because you will not want to stop until it's done. This is an absolutely wonderful, beautifully written book.

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