David Leavitt is an author I’ve not read for about ten years but who is responsible for one of my all-time favourites “The Lost Language Of Cranes” (1986) which I first read not long after publication (when Leavitt was 25) and last re-read in 2008 to see if it had lost its shine and as a re-read it came 2nd in my Books Of The Year. His 1998 novel “When England Sleeps” also made it to my end of year Top 5 in 2012. Two outstanding novels from this American author. I have also read and fully enjoyed his short story collection as well as books he has edited with Mark Mitchell. I enjoyed but didn’t love “The Body Of Jonah Boyd” (2004).
“Shelter In Place” is his 10th novel, published seven years after his 9th. It’s one of those novels where I’m not sure what I think, which certainly suggests it’s not on the same level as my favourites by him. This is a waspish comedy of manners, peopled by characters it is hard to care about and yet I would still recommend it.
It is set in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the horrors of this causes New York society doyenne Eva Lindquist to want to relocate to a life of faded grandeur in Venice. Eva is at the centre of a group of friends, most of whom she doesn’t seem to care very much about and the novel is largely a response to her fears of the Trump administration.
Although American politics is the catalyst for action it is not especially a political novel, the characters’ immediate concerns are dominated by the trivial, will interior designer Jake agree to work on the Venetian apartment? Will Min rescue her job in magazines by getting a front cover from the apartment? Will husband Bruce allow Eva to buy the apartment? Will Eva’s Bedlington Terriers do their number ones and twos on their walks with Bruce?
There are a lot of dinner parties, catered by a procession of nondescript (to the rest of them) young gay men and there’s a lot of dialogue with brittle humour. This makes it a quick fast-moving read even when plot-wise there’s not too much happening.
The author seems fully ensconced in American literary academia as Professor of English at the University of Florida and he obviously feels confident enough in this world as, through the voice of his characters, especially disgruntled book editor, Aaron, he is very sniping of the US literary establishment with Barbara Kingsolver, Paul Auster, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Safran Foer amongst those facing his vitriol. Hopefully, they know Leavitt well enough to take this dismissal of their work.
It is interesting that the cast for this are generally in their fifties or above, which feels unusual for a novel of this sort which tend to be peopled by bright young things. This gives an added dimension as they are facing change which Trump might bring about at a time when questioning their own positions as less relevant to the modern world.
There’s only one act of kindness in this book and that has to be carried out under the radar with the character responsible constantly questioning their own actions. Towards the end another character fills in back story in a section which could potentially have been a more impressive novel than the one Leavitt has actually written- I wonder if he is toying with us here, showing us glimpses of what might have been?
My four star criteria is always based on whether I would want to read it again and I think here the answer is yes, despite me not really caring for the characters nor the world they inhabit as they did still very much draw me in. It was humorous, involving and with a lot more depth than the shallow lives portrayed here which just nudges this book into the four star category. I can see why some people wouldn’t like it but I can’t see that many would proclaim this Leavitt’s finest work.
Shelter In Place was published in the UK in 2020 by Bloomsbury.