Published by Puck Press, January, 2016, 256 pages, $16.95; ISBN: 978-1-932287-80-6
When the film "An American in Paris" was released in 1951 an entire generation of Americans instantly longed for the life led by the character portrayed by Gene Kelly, an expatriate artist living the Bohemian life among the crumbling structures of Paris and the Riviera towns of France. Robert Sugarman's new novel, ANTIBES, takes us back one year to the very beginning of the second half of the 20th century when three young Americans were doing the same thing in the home of a White Russian Princess accompanied by an energetic young Frenchwoman. Harvey Schwartz, a painter with a vision, is joined by two school-chums from Syracuse University, Genevieve, a correspondent for Le Monde, and Evelyn Crandall, society girl from Short Hills, New Jersey. Joined very soon by a black jazz singer, also from Syracuse, named Clari Washington the foursome live out the reality of being out of their normal places in the world and discovering the limitless of possibilities in the atmosphere of the old world with its more liberal values. The adventures that lie before them make up the bulk of the novel as each experiments with both work and relationships and secrets never mentioned become primary aspects of their lives.
Sugarman never sugar-coats his characters negative aspects leaving them with highly human foibles, fears and foolishness to live through. Their stories meld and dissolve and meld again as their friendships grow and their partnering takes on dangerous aspects that threaten to break apart the closeness that Harvey, Evelyn and Genevieve once had in the college days. They learn, fairly quickly, that the people they were before World War II and before the growing Korean conflict are not necessarily the people they were destined to be. Realized dreams are not necessarily satisfying and unanticipated hopes become more devastatingly real as other Americans interfere with their ideal lives on the Riviera.
The author brings in the jazz musician Sidney Bechet as a major character. Bechet's liberating influence is echoed in the attitudes of two older women, Mara, the "Princess" landlady and her friend Angel. These three characters, along with a few other local Antibes denizens, bring an authenticity to the place and time and aid in the changes found in the three Americans as they find out who they are and who they might become as time goes on.
Bechet and Clari Washington add a wonderful element of music to the story and as Evelyn begins to add her own voice to the process of music her personal character aspects take giant steps into a reality that is at the center of the story. While there is no single "hero" character it is Evelyn who takes the longest strides and makes the most important and relevant shifts. Hating the safety valve of her at-home lifestyle, she steps into two worlds - musical and sexual - that she had never anticipated and the results are both devastating and liberating. This story is at the core of the book.
But, as the title suggests, it is the town of Antibes, its surrounding beaches and lighthouse, its gardens and its people that form the true central point of view in this story. As the place has inspired art over the centuries, so here it inspires talent to take risks. The best part of this work is finding those terrific points of interest and learning how they affect our characters and the people they encounter along the way during their one long summer together at Mara's and Bechet's establishments. The Swing Sisters, a vocal duo, alongside the new vision for the artist at his easel, the food, drink, sounds and smells of 1950 Antibes provide enough romance to keep any imagination afloat, topless, on the deep blue waters of the Meditteranean.
There are a few oddities in the writing style with quirky alterations in point-of-view, as well as internalizations that jump out at you with an almost drastic flip. There is the occasional turn of phrase that seems too modern. These aside, the story-telling is fluid and the book is a page-turner.
The final section, set twenty years later, brings a different aspect into the work as 1970 American morality and the growing anxiety over yet another war, this time in Vietnam, intrudes on the continuation of these four people's lives. Time has done what time does: altering for its own undeclared purposes the course of lives. What seemed right and natural to this foursome in 1950 France faces a new and a more severe sort of confrontation in 1970. Reunions are always unable to live up to expectations and for Evelyn, Clari, Harvey and Genevieve there are still surprises which don't completely surprise any of them. One of the best aspects of this fictional work is how the author manages to bring us home again, to Carnegie Hall, to suburban New Jersey and to Syracuse where this all began in the book's much discussed back-stories.
I enjoyed the adventure of these four people in their own times. If they could be found today, beyond the brusk and abrupt ending of the novel, how would their youthful decisions be impacting a younger generation right now? That is the question we're left with as Clari's niece Jewel is taking notes on how the foursome interact in 1970. I would love to know the answer to this fictional conundrum.