Damn if I didn’t fall hard in the early chapters, which find a handful of 20-something ex-pats in Budapest in 1990: John, the laid back, lovelorn accidental journalist has followed his brother Scott, a formerly obese exercise-hound who’s desire to shed pounds equals his desire to shed his past, Emily, a plain-old Nebraska good girl who cannot tell a lie, and Charles, the flesh-pressing leader of the troupe and the Canadian, Mark, who is on the surface, compulsively studying nostalgia, while quietly going insane.
Part I hyper-exposes them as cliches of the 20-something world travelers in a way that made me swoon and giggle and love each of them despite their know-it-all, on-top-of-the-world bravado. (Phillips, you artful satirist, you). Part II shifts focus to the elderly Imre Horvath’s past in relation to Hungary’s past, and the publishing house his forefathers built. Good God. The whole thing reminded me of that awful semester in college where I ended up slogging toward a C in a history class I hated. Unfortunately, Imre Horvath’s chapters are crucial to the next two sections of the book, business relationships and more history, which were nearly impossible to focus on, given the circumference of my permanent yawn.
To be fair, there are still occasional gems in this novel, that kept me from using it to roast S’mores. Nicky, a bald bisexual artist who is both hands on and hands off with John, is a great character — especially when she seduces the all-American snore, whom John thinks is the love of his life, Emily. And even in the bitterly blase end, there are entire paragraphs that are utterly fantastic:
He could not stomach setting off into 1991 with any of the others, not even Karen Whitley, who had lately donned a transparent attitude of jaded, sophisticated, take-it-or-leave-it disappointment, laced with a golden thread of ironic guilt-mongering, dusted all over with a heady vanilla body-spray scent of still-available.”
(Ha! I’ve met her before. In the mirror. When I was her age.)
Plus, Phillips does some interesting things with structure. For instance, shifting perspective between two characters in alternating paragraphs; List-making, with lists so long that you forget you are reading a list.
This is, very obviously, the same person who wrote The Song is You. I’d recognize the elaborate metaphors, even if they were wearing a fedora, trench coat and awkward sunglasses. It’s just that in this novel, it is exhausting; In The Song is You, it becomes part of the charm.