Photographer Alec Malone chose not to follow his father into politics, chose not to cover the war in Vietnam. And now, years later, he is forced to question whether he has lived a life without meaning.
Anyone who has followed the excellent run of novels that Ward Just has produced since the 1997 "Echo House" knows he exploits a small but very useful toolkit of themes. One theme is war: Just writes little about actual combat, but as a former journalist he has a keen eye for the acrobatics of diplomacy and statecraft. Another is place: Although his polestar is Washington, D.C., he also has written thoughtfully on Saigon ("A Dangerous Friend") and Chicago ("An Unfinished Season").
Last, and perhaps most important, is fatherhood. Just's novels often center on the bonds between men and their children, so while his beguiling new novel, "Exiles in the Garden," opens with photographer Alec Malone minding his elderly father, a lion of the Senate, the plot truly pivots on Alec's ex-wife, Lucia, whose father disappeared when she was a child.
Again, the setting is D.C. Lucia is a Czech immigrant working as an au pair for the Swiss ambassador when she meets Alec in the early '60s, and they soon settle into a house in Georgetown.
Their next-door neighbors are a count and countess who regularly host garden parties for World War II émigrés. "They were all damaged goods, a second-rate theatrical troupe giving nightly performances of the heartbreak of central Europe," Alec muses. The parties are mostly baffling to a man who leads a relatively sheltered life.
But they're seductive to Lucia, who empathizes with the tales of broken bonds. The garden is also where she hears that her father is not dead, as she's long suspected, and where she meets the Hungarian novelist who pulls her from Alec.
As the narrative shuttles between the present day and the Vietnam era, Just's novel captures the regrets that shadow Lucia and Alec, and not just because of their split. Alec increasingly feels that he has wasted his career -- he passed on an opportunity to cover Vietnam -- and the feeling becomes more pronounced when, inevitably, Lucia's father reappears, with many tales of the abuses and degradations he suffered.
The novel threatens to reduce to a pat essay on the virtues of manliness. But in his own artful, sinuous way, Just conducts a larger, richer exploration of the insecurities of American-ness; as a man who had the options of following in his father's footsteps or covering bloodshed, and who passed on both, Alec symbolizes a freedom of movement that those guests in the garden never had. And it's Just's particular talent to make that kind of story resonate without polemic. For Just, the most sensible way to write about geopolitics is to write about heartbreak.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at http://american fiction.wordpress.com.