Synopses & Reviews
The bestselling author of Birdsong
and Charlotte Gray
leaves the battlefields of wartime France for new fictional territory in this enthralling, vibrantly evocative romance set in America in 1960, when the country stood poised between the paranoia of the Cold War and the ebullience of the New Frontier.
Faulks's heroine is Mary Van der Linden, a pretty, reserved Englishwoman whose husband, Charlie, is posted to the British embassy in Washington. One night at a cocktail party Mary meets Frank Renzo, a reporter who has covered stories from the fall of Dienbienphu to the Emmett Till murder trial in Mississippi. Slowly, reluctantly, they fall in love. The desperate arc of their affair plays out against a vividly realized backdrop of America at its apogee, whose sights and sounds, fads and obsessions Faulks captures with pitchperfect accuracy. On Green Dolphin Street is a sexy, literate page-turner by a writer of enormous fluency and power.
"A romance full of luminous insights, brimming with feeling and paced to perfection....No contemporary author writes with more power, more eloquent simplicity." San Francisco Chronicle
"Smart, well-wrought...a tenderly orchestrated love story...everything an old-fashioned novel is supposed to do....It will provoke and linger." Chicago Tribune
"Faulks has given us immensely appealing people, and only the hardhearted can fail to respond to their experiences with sympathy." New York Post
In a year of great change, Mary van der Linden is undergoing a transformation, guided in her search by Frank, a New York journalist who introduces her to Greenwich Village, Miles Davis and adultery. The bestselling author of "Birdsong" and "Charlotte Gray" has written his first novel set in America, a richly atmospheric story of love and loss at the close of the comfortable Eisenhower era.
About the Author
Faulks worked as a journalist before taking up writing full-time in 1991.
Reading Group Guide
1. Mary van der Lindens life is shaped by her love for three men: David Oliver, who was killed during World War II, her husband Charlie, and Frank Renzo. Do these relationships define three different kinds of passion for her? What, if anything, do the three men have in common that appeals to Mary?
2. In Chapter 2, Charlie has a blackout and is warned by his doctor against drinking too much. Why does Mary not seem to take this warning as a threat to her familys well-being, and possibly as a threat to her husbands life? Is Charlie correct in thinking that Mary “lacked the capacity to envisage disaster” [p. 34]? Is she perhaps overly optimistic, or is she correct to assume that she can save him from his troubles?
3. According to Charlie, the affluent middle-class Americans he knows are suffering from “free-floating anxiety” because “they appeared to be losing the Cold War, and were always aware of that awkward fact” [pp. 26-27]. How is Charlie, as a liaison of the British Foreign Office, affected by the atmosphere of political paranoia? How serious are his professional troubles?
4. Mary responds to the news of her mothers illness courageously because “she thought, everything would be for the best after all, because no illness, no death or treacherous cruelty could be strong enough to break up a world so fortified with love or a life so diverse and rich in the sources of its contentment” [p. 61]. How powerfully do events shake Marys faith? How does this quote resonate for readers at the end of the novel?
5. How does Franks experience as a journalist reflect the political mood of America in the 1950s and 1960s? Does Faulks imply that the government felt free to abuse the civil rights of its people at the time? Where do Franks political sympathies lie?
6. What is striking about Faulkss portrayal of the social use of alcohol in the novel? What kinds of personal or social discomfort is alcohol being used to disguise or relieve? Does the widespread use of alcohol and cigarettes reveal an underlying unhappiness or even despair in the novels social milieu?
7. What is at the core of Charlies problems? Is there an external cause for his trouble, or is the trouble in his temperament, or his alcoholism? How accurate is Franks view that “all Charlies education came to nothing in the end because he could find no expression for the rage inside him. . . . It was not enough to die, there had to be self-destruction” [p. 86]?
8. In his previous novels, Sebastian Faulks has shown himself to be a brilliant chronicler of the effects of war on his characters hearts and minds. If you have read his earlier work, how is On Green Dolphin Street different? How does he portray the effects of war in a society that is, at least officially, at peace? How are the characters in this novel shaped by their historical moment?
9. How do Franks experiences with Vietnam, the FBI, and World War II—in which he killed six men—affect his approach to love? He has told Roxanne, his ex-wife, that killing people “felt like everything else that happens to you. It felt like nothing at all” [p. 85]. How does Franks love for Mary change him?
10. Reviewers have commented on Faulkss ability to create convincing scenes that conjure up the sights, sounds, smells, and mood of New York and Washington in 1960. How does he create the material world of the novel? What details are used to best effect?
11. Mary realizes that Frank is “me, my inner self. Its not just him that I yearn for when I call. Its myself, my previous life, my next life” [p. 245]. Yet she also believes that marriage “means that if an impossible choice is to be made” between ones own life and ones husbands “you choose his” [p. 313]. Does her expression of her moral dilemma in her notebook [p. 245] seem compelling because it is so realistic, or because it is so idealistic? Does her ultimate decision constitute a betrayal of her deepest self? What does she mean when she writes “its a question of being faithful to an essence” [p. 245]?
12. Some characters in On Green Dolphin Street express their awareness of a kind of existential blankness that surrounds their busy lives. Frank is troubled by “times linear, destructive rush” [p. 270], but Mary sees this in more positive terms, telling Frank “I want you to prove to me . . . that time doesnt matter” [p. 222]. What does Mary mean by this, and is what she wants possible?
13. What are Marys qualities as a heroine? What is admirable about her? How does her role as a wife in 1960 compare to what is expected from a wife nowadays?
14. What is the perspective on marriage expressed in Marys thoughts in the paragraph beginning “What does it mean to love a man” [pp. 312-13]? When Charlie asks, “Will you stay with me?” [p. 313], does his question imply that he knows about Marys affair with Frank? Is it because of her promise to Charlie at this moment that she ultimately lets go of Frank? How is the effect of this crucial exchange intensified by its setting in a seedy and frightening Moscow hotel room?
15. Why does fate take over at the end of the story? Does Faulks imply that Frank could have changed his and Marys future if Franks taxi had not gotten stuck in traffic? What is the view of life and love that the novel ultimately expresses?
“A romance full of luminous insights, brimming with feeling and paced to perfection. . . . No contemporary author writes with more power, more eloquent simplicity.” —San Francisco Chronicle
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your groups reading of Sebastian Faulkss On Green Dolphin Street. We hope they will enrich your discussion of this deeply romantic novel set in 1960s America, when the Cold War was raging, the civil rights movement was gathering strength, and the growing fear of communism was about to lure the United States into war in Vietnam.