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American Romantic by Ward Just
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American Romantic

by Ward Just

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I LOVED this book. There. Not a particularly erudite or literate start, but it's the truth. AMERICAN ROMANTIC is Ward Just's 18th novel, and it may be one of his best, but then I've only read five of his books - so far - so I could be wrong, but I doubt it. His books are like fine wine, they get better with age, and so does Just himself, who will turn 81 this year.

With AMERICAN ROMANTIC, Just seems to be looking back once more to events that happened when he was a young journalist who spent time in Vietnam, "when the war was not quite a war, more a prelude to a war." His protagonist Harry Sanders is a young foreign service officer who comes from a privileged background in rural Connecticut, his father a recipient of a well-endowed trust. He grew up surrounded by people of wealth and power, attended the best schools, and his overseas posting to Vietnam is seen as a first step toward advancement in the State Department. He is just adjusting to his role there, and has begun a love affair with Sieglinde, a young German medical technician, when he is hand-picked for a special undercover mission into the jungle. He is briefed personally by the Ambassador, who tells Harry: "This is what I call a moment of consequence."

The mission is not a success, and in fact goes profoundly wrong when Harry, unarmed and lost in the southern jungle, suddenly meets a young enemy soldier, and, in a brief, desperate struggle, Harry disarms the man "and shot him dead." Harry is stunned and shocked by his action, and visions of this chance encounter will continue to haunt him for the rest of his life.

The story which follows is a look at Harry's subsequent life as he rises through government ranks to become an ambassador himself, with postings in Africa, South America, Europe and, of course, Washington. He marries, quite happily, he thinks, but he never forgets Sieglinde, and how she so abruptly disappeared from his life so many years ago. Sieglinde's story is also detailed in a middle portion of the narrative, and, gradually, the reader begins to see how their lives nearly intersected at various points. Harry's wife, May, also becomes central, and we learn of her rough origins in rural Vermont, how she met Harry, and her various frustrations, disappointments and indiscretions as an ambassador's wife in obscure out-of-the way countries. Because that early "moment of consequence" continues to haunt Harry's career path, closing to him the plum assignments in Paris, Berlin, or other glamorous cities.

There is a Poe-like moment in one scene in which a still-grieving Harry, pondering some of his wife's private letters and diaries he finds after her death, thinks he hears "a tap at the door." Indeed, the bookshelves of his Washington office contain, "along with Koestler and Kennan, the poems of Poe ..."

Obviously influenced by the writing of people like Koestler and Kennan, Ward Just's novels have often dealt with the inner workings of Washington and the corridors of power, although he seldom takes sides. Harry, however, retired and living in a remote village in the south of France, considers the latest news from America.

"A black man running for the presidency! Harry had lived outside the country for so long he could not fathom how such a thing could happen, yet here he was, a graduate of both Columbia University and Harvard law, a white man's pedigree. He was a marvelous speaker and an even better writer ... Some caution warranted there. Probably a writer's temperament would not fit well in the modern White House, too much time given over to the shape and music of sentences while all around him clamored for action."

What a marvelous summing up of President Obama, his beautiful memoir, DREAMS FROM MY FATHER, and his eternal dilemma of a tendency toward thoughtfulness. Ward Just is apparently not, it turns out, without opinion as to the political scene. But that fundamental decency and civility that one finds in all of his books is also an important element in this, his latest. As a close and intimate look into the life of a career diplomat, a decent man, AMERICAN ROMANTIC is an unqualified success. I love the way Ward Just writes, and can't wait to read more of him. My highest recommendation.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER ( )
  TimBazzett | Feb 11, 2016 |
5231. American Romantic, by Ward Just (read 25 Dec 2014) This is an elegantly written novel and is the second novel by Just I have read, the prior one being his 1999 novel, A Dangerous Friend, read by me 16 Aug 2010. This book opens in Vietnam where Harry Sanders a young man with the American State Department undergoes an ordeal in having contact with the enemy in a fruitless attempt to avoid the up[coming war in Vietnam. He becomes involved with Seiglinde, a German woman, which involvement ends suddenly. Harry goes on in his career as an American diplomat, marries May, is widowed, retires to France where the somewhat dramatic final scene of the novel takes place. The book is saved by its ending, but for much of the book things seem pointless though told with aplomb. ( )
2 vote Schmerguls | Dec 25, 2014 |
"American Romantic" is about a career diplomat born of a wealthy Connecticut family, who ultimately serves as ambassador to a number of B list countries in Africa, the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe. The title is a complete mystery to me because the book, in my view, has nothing to do with romance. Harry Sanders has one major incident in his life when he is asked by the US ambassador in Saigon to pursue a peace feeler ostensibly from the other side. The first half of the book deals mainly with his assignment in Viet Nam in the 60's and was rather interesting and a bit suspenseful. Then we flash forward forty years for the second half and the pace grinds to a limp. Harry gets an embassy for two years then works stateside for the State Dept. for two to three years, then another embassy, then etc. etc. We learn of embassy receptions, dinners, flings, mostly in very long paragraphs as Harry ruminates on his career, and marriage; very little dialog. There were some interesting moments - why he doesn't really qualify for Embassy X and why he gets assigned to Embassy Y, despite wife May's preference for Y because then she can ride horses, blah, blah, There was a special someone during those Nam days, Sieglinde, and hours of sweaty sex in a hammock. Will Harry ever encounter Sieglinde again.? We have to wait until the last 10 words of the book. Too little too late for me. ( )
  maneekuhi | Aug 13, 2014 |
American Romantic is a beautifully written novel that traces the life of a career US Foreign Service man as he moves up the ladder toward the position of ambassador one diplomatic posting after another. Harry Sanders was born and raised in Connecticut, the son of a family with sufficient “old money” to hold Sunday lunches of drinks and fine food at his family’s summer place. The repeat guests were highly credentialed in government, business, banking, and diplomacy. Harry Sander’s father was a gentleman who provided country comfort and opulence for his guests on the estate, and his successful American friends could speak freely at the four hour weekly events assured of the measured comments, discretion, and confidentiality of their host. Harry’s father taught his son well the personality characteristics of carefully leavened reactions and above all patience in dealing with intelligent and influential people. One must be careful to avoid mistakes inherent in all decisions of thought and deed. At the beginning of his story, this general background provided excellent training for young Harry as he lived a comfortable life in Indochina in the early 1960’s performing his first important Foreign Service duties. The early years of the involvement of the US civil war in Vietnam put Harry close to diplomatic activity, but his bungalow in the Capitol was far from the killing action.

Chosen for a mission that could help in averting escalation of the war, Harry receives a challenge from his supervisor that determines the rest of his Foreign Service career. He must leave the Capitol and enter the jungle. He has been seeing Sieglinde an x-ray technician from a German hospital ship. She is an intelligent attractive person from Hamburg, and Harry wants her to jump ship and remain with him. Sieglinde begins to love Harry, but as a survivor of WWII in Germany, she is too free a spirit to surrender to an interesting life of coded manners with the fledgling Foreign Service worker. Without much enthusiasm, I expected a complicated love story to unfold in the wings of the tedious Vietnam War. Ward Just, however, is a great writer and creates a story that takes the reader far beyond the dangerous jungles of Vietnam and into the dutiful complacency of international diplomatic action. Harry’s life becomes as comfortable and romantic as the Sunday lunches of his father. His affair with Sieglinde becomes an infrequently recurring memory.

Ward’s use of time and character development in the story was very appealing to me. Harry is sent to postings far and wide during his career living a life of relative comfort even in difficult environments such as Scandinavia and Africa. As a result of his Vietnam mission, Harry is limited to good but not the highest level postings like Paris or Berlin. One second rate diplomatic posting blends into another even though they are continents apart. Harry develops a longstanding relationship leading to marriage with May, a sensitive woman interested in art history and horses. May is determined to remain comfortably detached from Harry’s diplomatic work going through the motions with minimal emotional investment. Time elapses with an interesting irregularity, and a few connected experiences determine the mixed levels of satisfaction in the interesting and above all patient life of Harry Sanders.

I saw some parallels between Ward’s American Romantic and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. The diplomacy in settings of waning global governmental influence are somewhat similar in both novels. But, Ward Just is much more subtle and interesting than Forster in his treatment of Foreign Service life. As I read the novel, American Romantic reminded me more of Mountolive, the third novel in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The character development of diplomats Harry and Mountolive together with the timing of events in their foreign service are similar in the two novels even though the locations of postings are very different and the events vary in dramatic outcomes. Both novels focus on the personal characteristics of success in foreign service that allow intelligent people to accept the reality of their limited influence in most situations with an understanding that the work is more form than substance. The appealing theme of the story is that we all may have someplace we would rather be, and in the diplomatic core this is made possible by one’s adherence to code: manners, confidentiality, and patience. The cost of this romantic life is permanently abandoning some things, like a first mature love with an indomitable free spirit, and an illusion of a sustaining self-respect. Can Harry maintain a comfortable life, an extension of his father’s Sunday lunches to the end? I highly recommend that you find out by reading this excellent novel. ( )
  GarySeverance | Apr 8, 2014 |
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While on duty as a young foreign service officer in Indochina in the 1960s, Harry Sanders briefly meets a young German woman who changes the course of his life.

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