‘American Romantic’ is an emotional ride through love and history


“American Romantic” by Ward Just, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 265 pp. $26.

Put novelist Ward Just’s 18th novel, “American Romantic,” on the no-to-be-missed list.

Following his last novel, a coming of age story called “Rodin’s Debutante,” Mr. Just’s latest novel is an emotionally detailed story about an American foreign-service officer, Harry, and the two women that he loves. It begins on a river in the vague world of ground-level Vietnam War diplomacy, with the excitement of the emerging guerrilla war and the passion of a beautiful, German girlfriend, Sieglinde, an x-ray technician on a hospital ship anchored in Saigon. She first calls him a romantic. It is an early love that is never forgotten.

He marries another and after 30 years of global postings and ambassadorships, Harry’s early idealism becomes little more than cynical posturing as he is haunted by an unsanctioned negotiation with the North Vietnamese years before.

Mr. Just brings his prodigious knowledge of 20th century politics and history to a tale that is entirely personal but greatly affected by that history.

He loves his wife, but he cannot forget Sieglinde. As a diplomat he struggles to justify American interference in other countries’ affairs, while in his personal life, he struggles between his feelings for the two women. Only during retirement after a long peripatetic career does Harry begin to gain an understanding of the forces at work on his life.

Mr. Just’s style is his own. His story telling method varies between third person narrative and an almost stream of consciousness style that seems to mimic the way we think, drifting between memory and conscious speculation, between conversation and historic recreation.

The dialog flows from descriptions of states of mind and memories with little punctuation to separate them. He provokes the bumping of “memories against memories,” as he calls it, and in the process produces a fascinating, emotionally charged world inhabited by people not unlike ourselves who often appear to be floating down the river of history and emotion.

With his wife, Sarah Catchpole, Mr. Just lived for many years in West Tisbury while wintering in Paris. They now live in Vineyard Haven and still winter in Paris.

His novels invariably involve story lines that cover periods in his life. From a childhood in northern Illinois, where his father owned a newspaper, to a distinguished career as a journalist in Southeast Asia, to the intrigues of the politics of Washington, D.C., where he lived and wrote, and a life of living abroad, Mr. Just uses backdrops that he knows intimately, but his books are as much studies of his characters’ emotional histories as they are about history.

In addition to his novels, Mr. Just has written numerous short stories, two non-fiction books based on his work as a correspondent for the Washington Post in Vietnam, and a play. His novel “An Unfinished Season,” also about growing up, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. His novel “Echo House” was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1997. He has twice been a finalist for the O. Henry Award an award for short stories. He was inducted into The American Academy of Arts and Letters last year.