About the book

Faulks shifted location to the United States for his sixth novel, which begins in 1959. It may seem in time to have been a transitional novel. It has a more modern setting than the previous books, yet it also seems concerned to have a final word on the impact of war on individual life in the twentieth century.

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The story of On Green Dolphin Street

The main character is Mary van der Linden, a lively and attractive woman, married to a hard-drinking British diplomat, Charlie, in Washington at the height of Russian dominance in the Cold War. They have two small children who are despatched, largely for financial reasons, to school in England.

Destabilised by this separation from her children and by her mother’s impending death from cancer, Mary falls in love with an American newspaperman, Frank Renzo. Frank is in a professional limbo, after having been suspended by his newspaper at the request of the House un-American Activities committee. He appears to be getting his career back on course when he is sent to cover the 1960 election between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

By then, he and Mary are embarked on a hopeless love affair. Mary struggles to balance her loyalties to Charlie, her children, her dying mother in London and to the new love of her life. Frank frets at his necessary absences caused by work, and encourages Mary to take a semi-permanent hotel room in New York.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s alcohol dependency becomes problematic. He is a clever but impatient man, whose love of jazz initially provides a bond between himself and Frank. In addition to his drink problems, however, Charlie has made several unwise investments and is being blackmailed by the security services following a liaison in the Far East.

Frank travels through America, and the book describes what he sees at the famous Kennedy-Nixon television debate in Chicago, his home town. ‘One of the things I learned from studying the Nixon-Kennedy debates is that these were both high-calibre candidates, extremely well informed,’ said Faulks. ‘There was a poignant contrast with George Bush II, who was elected as I wrote. I watched the hanging chad drama on CNN in Moscow where I was completing my research.’

We also learn of Frank’s difficult childhood in Chicago and of his war service in the Pacific, after which he has educated himself on the GI Bill. Charlie’s experiences in the Second World War are seen to underlie the melancholic and self-destructive streak that is evidenced in his drinking.

Frank unexpectedly meets Charlie one night in Minneapolis, prompting them to recall they have met before — in Indo-China (later Vietnam), at the defeat of the French army at Dien Bien Phu. It is clear that Charlie’s involvement with the intelligence services is more complex than he has let Mary know, and that they are destroying him. Mary meanwhile, in one of the book’s most moving scenes, sees her mother finally die in her bed in London; the experience gives her a sense of urgency in all her actions from that moment on.

As in Charlotte Gray, the novel is dominated by a female character. The novelist Julie Myerson, choosing On Green Dolphin Street as one of her favourite ever novels in The Observer in 2007, wrote: ‘It is one of the most heart-shakingly accurate depictions of how it feels to be female and in love that I have ever read.

Charlie is despatched to Moscow on a routine political mission for the Embassy. Here, however, he suffers a catastrophic breakdown, and Mary has to brave the rigours of Soviet Russia to go and bring him home. In a moment of epiphany, as she tries to soothe Charlie in a bedroom of the Ukraina hotel, Mary imagines the Soviet officials who are listening to their conversation in the attic of the skyscraper as being like recording angels. She knows the pledges she makes to Charlie cannot be forgotten or erased and will have implications for her love affair with Frank.

The novel ends in New York, where many of its best passages are set. Frank and Mary try to come to a conclusion, or at least an arrangement, that will make some sort of deal between passion and duty. Mary leaves for the airport at Idlewild in a snowstorm. A flurry of missed phone calls and misunderstandings bring the story to an emotionally harrowing conclusion.

The book was admired for its depiction of a woman at a critical passage in her life, and most readers were deeply sympathetic to Mary’s plight.

More facts about On Green Dolphin Street

The title is taken from a Miles Davis track of the period. Davis’s track comprised variations on a song that had been written to accompany a film of the same name, which had in turn been based on a book of that title…

On Green Dolphin Street was optioned to Ecosse Films and later to Eleventh Hour Films. It has been ‘in development’ since 2001. There is a screenplay by Sebastian Faulks and Rachel Wagstaff, developed with director Jonathan Kent.

The novel is dedicated to Richard and Elizabeth Dalkeith, neighbours of Faulks in London, who for five years lent him a room in their house in which to write.