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#70….The Alexandria Quartet….Mountolive

August 5, 2010

“He pondered deeply upon them during those long sleepless days and nights and for the first time he saw them, in the light of this new knowledge, as enigmas. They were puzzles now, and even their private moral relationship haunted him with a sense of something he had never properly understood, never clearly evaluated. Somehow his friendship for them had prevented him from thinking of them as people who might, like himself, be living on several different levels at once. As conspirators, as lovers–what was the key to the enigma? He could not guess.”

In Mountolive, Lawrence Durrell’s third installment of the dramatic Alexandria Quartet, Durrell takes a different turn from his previous novels Justine and Balthazar. We finally leave behind the whiny, depressed narrator Darley, and switch to an omniscent third person narrator who gives us the skinny on what’s REALLY going on behind the scenes. Mountolive might well be called “Nessim”, because a good portion of the novel takes place from Nessim’s POV…and boy, is he not who you think he is.

David Mountolive, a Britisher who is briefly mentioned during Balthazar, meets up with the same wacky cast of characters from Justine when he spends time at the Hosnani household perfecting his Arabic. He develops a close friendship with Nessim (pre-Justine) and an even closer friendship (with benefits) with Nessim’s mom Leila, who is tending her sick husband. We also get to know Nessim’s younger, less attractive brother Narouz, who is a couple cards short of a deck, if you know what I mean. Mountolive returns to England, and after years in the diplomatic service is finally given an Ambassadorship back to Egypt. He hopes to hook up again with Leila, whom he has been corresponding with by letter since he left, and whose husband has finally died, but Leila becomes disfigured after a bout with smallpox and is afraid to meet him.

Through diplomatic channels, and thanks to one of Pursewarden’s one-night-stands, Mountolive and we find out what Nessim’s really been up to all this time. Apparently he’s been shipping weapons illegally to Palestine in support of the Jewish cause. Which, if you’ve been keeping up, explains why he was so hot to marry Justine (she of the Jewish faith). We discover that Justine was sleeping with both Pursewarden and Darley to keep an eye on them in case they knew anything about Nessim, since Pursewarden is in the diplomatic corps and Darley is close to Melissa, who was dating someone who knew all about Nessim. When Pursewarden discovers the truth, he kills himself rather than turn in his friend, but tells Mountolive what he knows before he offs himself. Mountolive has to turn this information over to the British, and starts to see his friend in a whole new light. The Minister of the Interior, Memlik Pasha, is kept quiet by Nessim through bribery, and they both agree that no one need know which Hosnani brother was responsible for the diplomatic melee. So you guessed it…Narouz gets the blame and the gunfire.

There were good and bad things for me about Mountolive. Parts of it bored me to tears. It was way more historical and political than Justine or Balthazar, which were more gossipy and, at times, mopey and sentimental. The best part of the book, for me, happened once everyone started to figure out what Nessim was up to. I could not stop reading. There were a lot of “a-ha” moments….scenes from the first two books suddenly made sense. It made me want to go back and re-read the first two books again so I could put things together, or in case I missed stuff.

I have read that the next book, Clea is actually a sequel, not another POV on the same time period like the first three books, so I will be excited to finally move forward in time and see what happens to everyone.

Grade: B+
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