On Green Dolphin Street

On Green Dolphin Street

by Sebastian Faulks

Hardcover(1ST US)

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The bestselling author of Birdsong and Charlotte Gray delivers an enthralling, vibrantly evocative novel set in America in 1960, when the country stood poised between the paranoia of the Cold War and the ebullience of the New Frontier.

Faulks' heroine is Mary Van der Linden, a pretty, reserved Englishwoman whose husband, Charlie, is posted to the British embassy in Washington. One night at a cocktail party Mary meets Frank Renzo, a reporter who has covered stories from the fall of Dienbienphu to the Emmett Till murder trial in Mississippi. Slowly, reluctantly, they fall in love. Their ensuing affair, in all its desperate elation, plays out against a backdrop that ranges from the jazz clubs of Greenwich Village to the smoke-filled rooms of the Kennedy campaign. A romance in the grand tradition that is also a neon-lit portrait of America at its apogee, On Green Dolphin Street is Sebastian Faulks at the peak of his powers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375502255
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/01/1902
Edition description: 1ST US
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.62(w) x 9.54(h) x 1.20(d)

About 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.

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 tiled floor 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.

Reading Group Guide


“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.

1. Mary van der Linden’s life is shaped by her love for three men: David Oliver, who was killed during World War II, her husband Charlie, and Frank Renzo. Do these relationships define three different kinds of passion for her? What, if anything, do the three men have in common that appeals to Mary?

2. In Chapter 2, Charlie has a blackout and is warned by his doctor against drinking too much. Why does Mary not seem to take this warning as a threat to her family’s well-being, and possibly as a threat to her husband’s life? Is Charlie correct in thinking that Mary “lacked the capacity to envisage disaster” [p. 34]? Is she perhaps overly optimistic, or is she correct to assume that she can save him from his troubles?

3. According to Charlie, the affluent middle-class Americans he knows are suffering from “free-floating anxiety” because “they appeared to be losing the Cold War, and were always aware of that awkward fact” [pp. 26–27]. How is Charlie, as a liaison of the British Foreign Office, affected by the atmosphere of political paranoia? How serious are his professional troubles?

4. Mary responds to the news of her mother’s illness courageously because “she thought, everything would be for the best after all, because no illness, no death or treacherous cruelty could be strong enough to break up a world so fortified with love or a life so diverse and rich in the sources of its contentment” [p. 61]. How powerfully do events shake Mary’s faith? How does this quote resonate for readers at the end of the novel?

5. How does Frank’s experience as a journalist reflect the political mood of America in the 1950s and 1960s? Does Faulks imply that the government felt free to abuse the civil rights of its people at the time? Where do Frank’s political sympathies lie?

6. What is striking about Faulks’s portrayal of the social use of alcohol in the novel? What kinds of personal or social discomfort is alcohol being used to disguise or relieve? Does the widespread use of alcohol and cigarettes reveal an underlying unhappiness or even despair in the novel’s social milieu?

7. What is at the core of Charlie’s problems? Is there an external cause for his trouble, or is the trouble in his temperament, or his alcoholism? How accurate is Frank’s view that “all Charlie’s education came to nothing in the end because he could find no expression for the rage inside him. . . . It was not enough to die, there had to be self-destruction” [p. 86]?

8. In his previous novels, Sebastian Faulks has shown himself to be a brilliant chronicler of the effects of war on his characters’ hearts and minds. If you have read his earlier work, how is On Green Dolphin Street different? How does he portray the effects of war in a society that is, at least officially, at peace? How are the characters in this novel shaped by their historical moment?

9. How do Frank’s experiences with Vietnam, the FBI, and World War II—in which he killed six men—affect his approach to love? He has told Roxanne, his ex-wife, that killing people “felt like everything else that happens to you. It felt like nothing at all” [p. 85]. How does Frank’s love for Mary change him?

10. Reviewers have commented on Faulks’s ability to create convincing scenes that conjure up the sights, sounds, smells, and mood of New York and Washington in 1960. How does he create the material world of the novel? What details are used to best effect?

11. Mary realizes that Frank is “me, my inner self. It’s not just him that I yearn for when I call. It’s myself, my previous life, my next life” [p. 245]. Yet she also believes that marriage “means that if an impossible choice is to be made” between one’s own life and one’s husband’s “you choose his” [p. 313]. Does her expression of her moral dilemma in her notebook [p. 245] seem compelling because it is so realistic, or because it is so idealistic? Does her ultimate decision constitute a betrayal of her deepest self? What does she mean when she writes “it’s a question of being faithful to an essence” [p. 245]?

12. Some characters in On Green Dolphin Street express their awareness of a kind of existential blankness that surrounds their busy lives. Frank is troubled by “time’s linear, destructive rush” [p. 270], but Mary sees this in more positive terms, telling Frank “I want you to prove to me . . . that time doesn’t matter” [p. 222]. What does Mary mean by this, and is what she wants possible?

13. What are Mary’s qualities as a heroine? What is admirable about her? How does her role as a wife in 1960 compare to what is expected from a wife nowadays?

14. What is the perspective on marriage expressed in Mary’s thoughts in the paragraph beginning “What does it mean to love a man” [pp. 312–13]? When Charlie asks, “Will you stay with me?” [p. 313], does his question imply that he knows about Mary’s affair with Frank? Is it because of her promise to Charlie at this moment that she ultimately lets go of Frank? How is the effect of this crucial exchange intensified by its setting in a seedy and frightening Moscow hotel room?

15. Why does fate take over at the end of the story? Does Faulks imply that Frank could have changed his and Mary’s future if Frank’s taxi had not gotten stuck in traffic? What is the view of life and love that the novel ultimately expresses?

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On Green Dolphin Street 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
JediJane on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love this book - its my favourite Faulks book, because I can still feel all of the passion and guilt and excitement of the love affair that grips the novel, even though its over 5 years since I've read it.I also liked the way that On Green Dolphin Street focuses on the earlier aspects of the Indo-Chinese War - something about this reminds me of Graham Greene's The Quiet American. I love the way that Faulks writes his characters and am always in awe of the vivacity of his women. This is certainly the book I always refer to, along with Cloud Atlas, when people ask me what my favourite books are.
Eyejaybee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A wholly enthralling love story, set in Washington DC in 1959-1960, against the backdrop of the Kennedy-Nixon election contest.Charlie van der Linden is a British diplomat based at the embassy in Washington where he is viewed as a high flier because of the depth of his analysis of the prevailing political scene in America. he lives with his wife Mary and their two young children, though the children are about to depart for boarding school back home. As the novel opens they are holding a party to celebrate their wedding anniversary. One of the guests is a political journalist, Frank Renzo, whom Charlie had encountered fleetingly years before in Dien Bien Phu, in Vietnam,during the ill-fated siege of the town that led to the French withdrawal from Indochina. On the basis of this very slight acquaintance (that in fact the sozzled Charlie can scarcely recall) Frank is invited to come along to the party. There he immediately (and utterly irretrievably) falls in love with Mary, and it gradually becomes evident that she returns his passion.The novel then details the progress of their affection for each other, while also chronicling the presidential election campaign. Charlie does not realise what is happening as he is becoming increasingly dependent upon the vast amounts of alcohol that he consumes, to such an extent that his career is threatened.Faulks captures the depth of the respective characters' emotions faultlessly - this an yet another tour de force from him. He has a fantastic knack of pitching the emotional intensity just right.
outside-jane on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A wonderfully visual and evocative tale set during the Nixon-Kennedy election campaign. It reminded me of Mad Men: there's a simplicity and stillness in the telling. As always Faulks gives us well written and sympathetic characters, who I grew to care for. I am still musing on the ending... it was tough! But maybe right. Great book, from a fast becoming favourite author. Definitely recommend.
mashley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Like this author. Not my favorite of his.
lizchris on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a story of early 1960s life in American diplomatic and journalist circles. The book evokes a great sense of place and time, the excitement of the Kennedy election, life on the streets of New York, the real fear of Russia. The novel revolves around a diplomat's wife called Mary. Her love for her children is beautifully written but the author can't seem to find the words to describe intense love between adults and so some of the dialogue feels a little hackneyed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Historical /english and new zealand there was a movie . he sends for the one pretty sister to marry and mixes up the names and the wrong one arrives in new zealand the other sister becomes a nun sorta a gone with the wind thats where the song comes from the movie.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
"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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.