American Romantic

By Ward Just

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Ward Just, 78, a Midwesterner who briefly attended Trinity College, began his career as journalist, including stints as a correspondent for Newsweek and the Washington Post, before concentrating on writing novels. “American Romantic” is his 18th (he has published short story collections as well), and Washington Post reviewer Jonathan Yardley, a great admirer of Just’s work, says this latest novel may well be “the best of them all.” Just writes often about how politics affects the personal lives of its practitioners and his stories usually are set in Washington or foreign nations, or both.

What is this book about?

Harry, a young American foreign service officer from a wealthy and liberal Connecticut family, is posted to Indochina as the conflict that will become the Vietnam War gathers momentum. There, two things occur that influence the rest of his professional and personal life. He has an off-the-books meeting with insurgents that goes very, very wrong and he meets Sieglinde, a German woman who becomes the love of his life, but not his wife. That would be May, a New Englander as well, and while his diplomatic career and their marriage are successful, he never forgets Sieglinde, who describes Harry  as an “an American romantic.” May also harbors secrets.

Why you’ll like it:

This novel plays with the ironic truth that even those who are smart and powerful enough to influence international affairs may not be able to successfully manage their own. Through the story of the once idealistic, but increasingly cynical Harry, who has known loves both passionate and deeply comforting and who has learned that diplomacy and intrigue can be inextricably, if contradictorily, entwined, we see parallels to America’s own progress from naïve confidence in the early days in Vietnam to today’s resigned, pragmatic acknowledgement that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars failed to justify their overwhelming cost. Reviewers praise Just’s elegant writing as well as his clear-eyed look at contemporary history and its major and minor players.

What others are saying:

Booklist’s starred review says: “ In this deft portrait of a promising young foreign service officer, Just reaches back to the earliest, hazy days leading up to the “misbegotten” Vietnam War, a time and place he witnessed firsthand. Though he never names the country Harry Sanders is posted in, Just describes it with molecular particularity, from the roiling city streets to the malevolence of the deep jungle, creating an arresting visual lexicon drawn from the paintings of Matisse, Vuillard, and Munch. This adds evocative textures to Just’s lushly sensuous and moodily introspective tale while also conveying Harry’s cultural legacy as a man born to privilege in orderly Connecticut, the opposite of this dense, lacerating land. Stubborn and idealistic, Harry envisions a bright future as a diplomat with the beautiful if haunted Sieglinde at his side, though they hardly know each other.  . . . He sees himself as a “connoisseur of the counterfeit and the inexplicable” after a dangerous, clandestine mission and Sieglinde’s abrupt disappearance leave him hobbled and scarred. As Just circles forward and back to tell their dramatic stories, he dissects the romance, presumption, nobility, and futility of the diplomatic life and weighs the stoniness of the past. Master writer Just’s eighteenth novel is elegantly structured, worldly wise, shrewdly suspenseful, and profoundly satisfying.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says:  “Just’s 18th tells the sensitive, elegant stories of a young, desperately naïve American foreign service officer and the two women who love him.  . . . Harry’s budding career, however, takes a fatal turn when he is duped into a secret, unsanctioned negotiation with the North Vietnamese and his actions come back to haunt him. Years later, Harry marries May, and she follows him through 30 years of global postings and ambassadorships, during which time Harry’s early career idealism becomes cynical posturing. And although he loves his wife, he cannot forget Sieglinde. In his work, he struggles to justify American interference in other countries’ affairs, while in his personal life, he is torn between his feelings for the two women. Only after he retires does Harry finally understand something about his life. Just’s clever plot reveals a man conflicted by duty and loyalty, adroitly playing the State Department career game, but always wondering what might have happened if he had just made one or two different choices in his life. It’s also a fascinating portrayal of American embassy operations and the treacherous shoals of international diplomacy and duplicity.”

“The latest from Just considers the toll that a life lived upon the great stage of international politics can take on a man of substance. . . Mired in disinformation, Harry’s stranded in the jungle, injured, forced to kill. Once the “war turned into an ironist’s feast, a smorgasbord of contradictions and false hopes,” Harry becomes damaged goods, but State owes him, and so comes a lifetime of assignments to Paraguay, Africa, Norway. There’s a comfortable, even loving, marriage to May, but Harry forever remembers Sieglinde, a German woman with whom he had an affair in Saigon. . . . Minor characters, especially Harry’s ambassador mentor, fascinate and shine with veracity.  . . Just writes without quotation marks, but the narrative’s beautifully descriptive story is easily parsed, growing especially intense when Harry is trapped in the jungle and later when he is assaulted by grief.  . . . Just is sometimes cynical in his appreciation of diplomacy and existential in regard to God, but Harry, as much a realist as a romantic, is a man astride the American century. Another brilliant novel from Just: wise, introspective and full of humanity,“ says Kirkus Reviews.

Library Journal, in another starred review, says: “Trust Just, a onetime journalist and author of nuanced political/historical fiction . . . to offer a sweeping view of late 20th-century U.S. diplomacy. He opens in early 1960s Indochina, when “their army was called a guerrilla force. Our army was called a Military Assistance Command,” as eager young Harry Sanders fails at a secret outreach mission to the enemy. Recognized as perhaps too genteel for a business that’s “not a straight-line affair”—he even chides himself tartly as “the ambitious one who thought that a negotiated settlement would end the war”—Harry gets more manageable postings over the next decades and marries sweet, naïve May. Meanwhile, he recalls his affair with Sieglinde, a technician on a German hospital ship in Saigon’s harbor who sails away despite her promises.  . . One wonders: Are can-do Yankees as shaped as anyone by historical forces, and did Vietnam (and beyond) prove that we can’t do everything? VERDICT Highly recommended as a sharp, fluidly written book on what it means to be American; great for book clubs.

When is it available?

It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library now.

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