There is a stowaway, like Conrad's secret sharer, aboard almost any work of fiction: the author's person, reflected and deflected in one or more of the principal characters. Having evoked the growled contradictions, raffishly engrossing, of his lawyer character, Begley has now, in
Shipwreck, done something equivalent, though more brittle, for the protagonist as writer. Richard Eder
The New York Times Book Review
Shipwreck is at once a classic, even Jamesian novel of character and a highly erotic, very grown-up modern thriller -- in other words, another triumph for Louis Begley.
A happily middle-aged novelist of some repute wakes up one morning, decides his work is worthless (oh, those writers!), and immediately becomes embroiled with a young Frenchwoman who turns out to be both phenomenally demanding and, as things spiral downward, exceedingly difficult to shake. Havoc ensues—wild messages left on answering machines, illicit trysts in the Vineyard, a possible cooling off of his rich wife’s affection. This predictable, curiously prurient tale—Begley’s athletic bedroom scenes seem not so much experienced by the narrator as peered at by the reader—is dished up, over many hours, to an anonymous listener in a bar, apparently as a kind of Ancient Mariner Blue Plate special.
The moral disintegration of a man consumed by lust is the narrative frame of Begley's haunting new novel. Since the man, John North, is a celebrated author of literary novels, the subtext concerns the nature of the creative process. North tells his story to the nameless narrator in a series of monologues. In Paris after the publication of his new novel, North is interviewed by a young Vogue writer, L a Morini, who later comes on to him in a blatant fashion. Although he has never been unfaithful to Lydia, the wife he adores-though she is a busy research physician, she selflessly caters to his demands-North persuades himself that a brief fling with L a will revivify his work. Struggling with creative self-doubt, North also confesses to faults of selfishness, egotism, resentment and envy of Lydia's family, who are Jewish and wealthy, as compared to his own parents, who are old-guard Protestants. With scenes set in Paris, Martha's Vineyard, the Greek island of Spetsai, East Hampton and Hollywood, Begley enters Louis Auchincloss territory (although with sexual details that Auchincloss would never dream of), and proves himself an astute observer of different social classes and the minute variations in their behavior invisible to those outside the inner circle. But it's the meticulously revealed psychology of a man who doesn't like himself (yet believes that he's superior to most people) that propels the narrative here, as North surrenders to his prurient desire, while vowing that Lydia will never learn of his betrayal. L a proves predatory in her pursuit, however, and the story's sense of dread and suspense mount as events move to a mesmerizing conclusion. Yet Begley ends the novel on a note of ambiguity, leading the reader to speculate whether the narrator is perhaps North's alter ego, and the entire story a brilliant exposition of the way authors can use the material of their lives to create brilliant fiction. 4-city author tour. (Sept. 25) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
In this unnerving work, celebrated American novelist John North stumbles into a bar and begins telling a hapless customer a story he has never revealed to anyone before. North has had a crisis, suddenly suspecting that his work is no good, which may be why he is susceptible to the charms of the young French journalist who interviews him in Paris. Though North has always been deeply devoted to too-good-to-be-true wife Lydia, a medical researcher from a rich and distinguished family, he becomes totally caught up in Lia's kinky sex games. When she threatens to upend the perfect balance between North and his wife, he must act. The novel is both riveting and slightly off-putting; North is not the most ingratiating character, the sexual obsession wears, and one does start to wonder what all this has to do with North's ostensible doubts about his writing, an intriguing issue that somehow gets lost. At the powerful closing, however, one can finally conclude that novelists are indeed an amoral bunch and that North's greatest story is his edgy, suspect life. Recommended for most collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/03.]-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
A precious account of an American writer's love affair with a young Frenchwoman. John North is someone who has pretty much achieved everything he could hope for in life. Happily married to a renowned New York physician, John is a well-regarded novelist with plenty of money, an extensive circle of friends (in America and abroad), a nice apartment in Manhattan, and a weekend house in East Hampton. He's sophisticated, respected, and serious-in other words, a stuffed shirt. And he knows it, too. In Paris to promote the French translation of one of his books, John is so overwhelmed by the burden of his persona that he accosts a perfect stranger in a café one night and proceeds to tell him the true story of his life. His rambling confession soon focuses on Lea Morini, a Parisian journalist and artist who interviewed him during another book tour. Young, exquisite, and emotionally ambiguous, Lea is the mistress of a prominent French banker and has several lovers besides. She soon adds John to her list, and the two proceed to carry on a now-and-then affair on both sides of the Atlantic that's exciting for John but promises no great trauma at first. Eventually, however, Lea becomes more and more possessive of John, telephoning him constantly and making excuses to see him whenever she's in the US. This becomes more than John wanted or hoped for, but his vanity (flattered by the admiration of a young beauty) won't let him break away, and the course of their relations progresses inevitably to the point where catastrophe is inescapable. And once the crisis comes, and John survives it, he finds himself driven to confess. Overworked to the point of caricature: Like Woody Allen, Begley (Mistler's Exit,1998, etc.) sets his scenes largely by dropping names (here a party at the New Yorker, there an appearance on Apostrophes), but his characters never become credible in their own right. The story ends up feeling stagy and faked.
“Fascinating . . . Absolutely riveting . . . The suspense . . . swells like a tsunami . . . A first-rate read.”
–Joyce Cohen, People (three stars out of four)
“Mesmerizing . . . Hypnotic . . . Intensely readable and even soul-shaking . . .
Shipwreck is at once a classic, even Jamesian novel of character and a highly erotic, very grown-up modern thriller–in other words, another triumph for Louis Begley.” –Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World “Begley is a major talent . . . He is totally in command here, and we can only marvel at his portraiture . . . Shipwreck is a novel of skill, insight, and authority.” –Roger Harris, Sunday Star-Ledger (Newark)
“Dazzling . . . So enthralling that the temptation is to let a thousand glowing adjectives bloom . . . Will pin readers to their chair right up to the final page . . . The ending is a tour de force.”
–Mameve Medwed, Boston Globe
“Compellingly and compulsively told . . . [North’s] obsessive self-awareness, like a mirror, catches our attention and holds it fast.”
–Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times