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PARIS — With the fashion elite making their Concorde migrations to Paris — and even twentysomething assistants Google-ing for cheap tickets to London or Barcelona for long party weekends — it’s easy to forget how foreign Europe used to be.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a painter,” recalls New York novelist Frederic Tuten. “I wanted to go to cafés and talk about philosophy. I thought Europe was elegant, beautiful and noble. Part of me never got over it.”
A sojourn on the continent inspired a whole sub-genre of enduring American novels. “I’ve read all that literature — ‘Tender is the Night,’ Hemingway and Henry James,” says the Bronx native, a lifelong habitué of Paris cafes and Roman trattorias. “I don’t see that there have been those kinds of novels written in 25 years.”
Tuten’s fifth novel, “The Green Hour” (W.W. Norton & Co.), revives the tradition of Americans abroad. Its publication in October will be greeted by a round of parties thrown by his circle of high-powered friends like Eric Fischl and April Gornick in the Hamptons, Ronnie and Jonathan Newhouse in New York and Steve Martin in Los Angeles.
The characters in “The Green Hour” — named for the twilight time when 19th century absinthe drinkers would stroll out for a dose of the green drink — are trans-Atlantic wanderers. Like Tuten himself, they go to Europe for work and study, but not in the manner of the Jamesian lady, who treats Europe as a finishing school. Nor do they leave home with the intention of staying abroad, as did Fitzgerald’s expatriates and Hemingway’s adventurers.
“These are not escapees from America,” says Tuten. “Unlike in the 1930s — when Henry Miller and others wanted to leave the ugliness of America and go to something less puritanical — in my novel, the reasons the characters go are more cultural.”
The main character, Dominique, is a distinguished art historian in love with the incalculable artistic wealth of the Prado and the Louvre. Her professional interest — and her inner being — swings between the opposite poles represented by Goya and Poussin, the romantic Spaniard and the French classicist. Although able to reconcile the passion of Goya and the chilly formalism in her professional work, Dominique can’t do the same in her personal life. “The Green Hour” twists around her inability to choose between two men. Rex, the love of her life since their college days, is a sexy champion of the proletariat, while Eric is a self-made man, who — over the course of the tentative love story — acquires the trappings of immense wealth (the private jets, bespoke clothing and a huge Montauk mansion).
The most constant man in Dominique’s life is her former thesis advisor, Dr. Morin. As her academic mentor, confidant and — on a single night — lover, he gently guides her in matters professional and intimate. Still, Dominique remains the focus of every page, occupying the attention of the three men. Without giving away Dominique’s ultimate decision, suffice it to say that Tuten doesn’t make it easy for her to choose.
“Dominique has a side to her that loves elegance,” says the author empathetically. “There’s a kind of graciousness to life that only wealth can provide.”
But penniless Rex has one thing that can’t be bought with an American Express Centurion card — irresistible sex appeal. Asked if Dominique’s choice is a universal dilemma, Tuten replies, “Henry James once said, ‘In every woman’s life there is, at least once, a man with a mustache.”