Sunday, August 1, 2010
Heart of Lies by M.L. Malcolm
Leo Hoffman has a gift for languages, and that's where his problems begin. As Heart of Lies begins, Leo has contented himself with using his talent to coddle the rich guests of the Budapest hotel where he works as a concierge, pleased to have a steady job in the wake of World War I. Little does Leo know, when the father of an old flame approaches him about a meeting with a group of powerful men, that his life is about to be turned totally upside down. Within a few days, Leo has met (at first sight) his one true love, been unintentionally involved in a major crime, and comitted a major crime of his own. With his life and his new love in jeopardy Leo flees to the one place he knows where no one will ask questions about his past, Shanghai. Leo will do anything to make the happily ever after he promised Martha, his young German lover, but when the Chinese civil war rocks the international settlements of Shanghai, Leo's carefully constructed life begins to crumble.
There are two halves to the whole of Heart of Lies, the love story half and the international intrigue half, and one is vastly more compelling than the other. Leo getting caught in the treacherous web of Hungarian fascists, making his way to Shanghai and building his fortune through precarious business dealings with the most dangerous of men, and his ascent to social prominence among the elite of Shanghai are the stuff of great storytelling. The characters Leo is up against are deliciously evil, and Leo is a sympathetic, if conflicted and not altogether righteous, hero as he navigates a new world that never seems quite far enough from his former one. Malcolm brings many locales to glittering life from Paris at Christmas to the wild contradictions that made up early 20th century Shanghai.
He took Martha's hand in his and led her back to the all but empty dance floor. They paused for an instant to catch the rhythm of the music. Then with one quick step backward, Leo and Martha floated into the dance. They moved in effortless unison, gliding in swift circles around the room, stepping and turning as though the music emanated from them, as if their dance granted the spectators permisson to share, for a moment, the magic of their special union.
Unfortunately, the love story didn't live up to the standard set by the rest of the book. Leo spends only a day or two with Martha, but it only takes hours for him to decide that she is the only one for him. While the idea of a love at first sight tale beginning in Paris at Christmastime is terribly romantic, Leo and Martha's love story comes off as shallow at times and as overdramatically unrealistic at others. It is not until the two reunite in Shanghai and the occasional reality begins to set in amid their wedded bliss that the couple begins to seem genuine. For the first portion of the book, the two main characters are much more compelling and realistic apart than they are together. When they come together, all rationality falls away and the loving platitudes and sweet nothings they level at each other border on the cringeworthy.
Fortunately, however, the history and the intrigue come out on top and render Heart of Lies an overall good read that I found difficult to put down until I'd turned the last page.
(Thanks to Nicole at The Book Report Network for providing a copy for review.)