An Unexpected Guest (277 pages, Back Bay Books, $15), a debut novel from Anne Korkeakivi, tells one day in the life of the wife of a British foreign minister stationed in Paris. Asked to host a dinner party at the last minute, Clare Montrose finds herself having to prepare an occasion that will determine whether or not her husband gets his next posting, a promotion to ambassador in a new location. She goes into automatic pilot—organizing the staff, deciding on a menu, and working out details with the staff of the embassy, where the dinner was originally to have been held.
As she wakes in the morning and organizes her day, another two complications begin to envelop her. First, she discovers that her husband’s likely posting, if the dinner is a success, will be to Dublin. The dread she feels at this suggestion at first remains merely atmospheric, but it is real enough. She dreads the name of the city and to go there, she imagines, will drive her mad. Second, she has a call from the younger of her two teenage sons, the fifteen year-old James, or Jamie, who is in private school in London. He seems to be in some kind of trouble and is heading home. She doesn’t know whether he has been expelled or has simply absconded, but in either case, she is terribly worried.
As the day advances, she proceeds in her dinner preparations, always recognizing how very important this dinner is to her husband. Edward has been her partner for twenty years, and she loves him deeply. But she harbors secrets from the past that she worries might destroy their relationship. She plans the dinner with care—deciding to choose the vegetables and the flowers herself—and in a wonderful scene she works out details with the very talented chef Matilde, a Swiss and Scottish woman who steals every scene of which she is a part.
As she attends to the various details of the dinner, she also deals with the fact of her son’s misbehavior, the details of which she seems unable to discover, and, shortly later, his very presence at the minister’s residence. She doesn’t want him to upset the dinner plans—it means far too much to her husband to let her son disrupt the evening—so she pleads with him to hide out in his room. But this doesn’t stop her worrying about what he might have done or what might be necessary to get him back in school.
At the same time, she allows herself to call up the distant past and remember her own youthful transgression, a rather grand political gesture, it turns out, that led her to Dublin and to activities that she worries may have meant the deaths of innocent people. This is a rather damning interpretation of what in reality seems to have been a young girl’s infatuation with a firebrand from the IRA who persuaded her to do something down right foolish. That she did it, and did it successfully, is all a measure of her feelings for the young man in question, a young Irish man, who could persuade her to do almost anything.
That these memories are nagging at her more aggressively because of her husband’s Irish posting does nothing to reassure her or weaken their intensity, in fact they build to a climax, almost precisely when the dinner party is meant to be coming perfectly together.
The book is described as a thriller, and this is the thrill: will the dinner party come off as flawlessly as it needs to in order for Edward to get the Dublin ambassadorship? can Jamie be put back on the right track? and will the memories of Clare's political past emerge to destroy the realities of her present. Anne Korkeakivi does a fantastic job of balancing these possibilities and making it very thrilling indeed to see what she succeeds in accomplishing in a world as harrowing as the one she inhabits. This is a great first novel that bodes only better things to come.