If you have read Mrs. Dalloway (and what self-respecting fiction writer or fiction lover hasn’t?), you will likely recognize some similarities between An Unexpected Guest and Virginia Woolf’s famous novel even without the benefit of the jacket copy’s reminder. In fact, Korkeakivi’s novel could just as easily have been titled Mrs. Moorhouse (or perhaps Madame Moorhouse). Like Clarissa Dalloway, Clare Moorhouse spends the single day in which the novel unspools preparing for and hosting a dinner party. She’s quite fond of flowers, too.
Madame Moorhouse is the American-born wife of a high-ranking British diplomat based in Paris. We learn quickly that her husband desires a plum appointment to Dublin, and that this prize may well be in reach—if the evening’s dinner party proceeds smoothly. But her Irish ancestry notwithstanding (Madame Moorhouse was née Clare Siobhan Fennelly), our protagonist has reasons to worry about a transfer to Dublin. Those reasons—and a ghostly presence from her past—haunt her as she goes about her day in Paris.
An Unexpected Guest transpires in a rarefied world, and that may distance some readers. If scenes that unfold in gourmet supermarkets and museum gardens don’t appeal to you, this book might not either. I’m a Francophile, so the frequent inclusion of French dialogue pleases me. But, as I learned back as an MFA student, there are those who believe that “people who use ‘foreign’ words in their fiction are just showing off.” Again, if that’s your disposition, you might choose to steer clear of this book.
Which would be too bad, because you’d miss a satisfying reading experience and the chance to consider anew the ways in which earlier literature can influence new writerly generations. And, of course, you’d be missing an inexpensive, luggage- and logistics-free trip to Paris.
- Preview (and, if you like, purchase) Korkeakivi’s “Folding Paper,” an Atlantic Fiction for Kindle offering.
- If you haven’t (gasp) read Mrs. Dalloway, Project Gutenberg will make things right.
- If you’ll be in Paris anytime soon—or if you simply wish to imagine what your literary life might be like there—you’ll find Laurel Zuckerman’s Paris Writers News posts and updates most valuable.