Though the main narrative of this novel is set in the closing years of the eighteenth century, two near-contemporary chapters bracket it. These – afterthoughts I should guess – are effortful and leaden in comparison with the confident vigour of the rest of the book.
The initial chapter presents us with four people holed up together in the wilds of Idaho: an English male writer, an English girl, and two American men. One of the American men is in love with the other, who in turn is in love with the girl. As though the chapter is a summary of a novel or at least a long short story, we are offered far too much information about these people and their doings in far too cramped a space. When the straight American asserts that his countrymen ‘are great at saying “Hi!” to new people but have no gift for intimacy’, this leads to a discussion of how Western culture has ‘segued from the idea of giving yourself totally to Jesus to one of giving yourself totally to love’.
The next day, the gay American suggests that an ancestor of his, William Short, might be a good subject for the Englishman’s next book. In 1876, Short went to Paris to serve as secretary to Thomas Jefferson, recently appointed as American minister to France. Seduced by the suggestion, the Englishman