Elizabeth Benedict's third novel is as diabolically constructed as a sting operation in which it is the narrator who gets stung into tragic self-knowledge. Half movie and half novel, with its two halves watching each other as balefully as the KGB once watched the CIA, and vice versa, this rueful relic of Cold War mentality is a tour de force in point of view showing that love at its most political is when it gets most intensely personal.
Kate Lurie is a documentary filmmaker in her early 30s who loves and marries a man of the 1950s in his 50s, Eli "Mac" MacKenzie, a veteran Cold War Foreign Service officer.
Mac has been mildly disgraced by an open affair with a vibrant young Russian woman that occurred while he was still married to (and estranged from) his first wife and stationed alone in Leningrad in 1974.
He meets Kate while she's shooting a documentary at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and he's languishing through the last of the Reagan years. They marry after he has told her the complete story of the turbulent three-week affair that got him recalled from the Soviet Union.
Ms. Benedict is positively Tolstoyan in evoking the "premeditatedcity," as it was called by Dostoyevski, of the Czar Peter the Great, with its "white nights" of late spring when the sun sets at midnight and rises again at 1 a.m. to gild the passionate love of Mac and Lida Podryadchikova, whose father is a Soviet general.
"She refused to submit to the vast, crushing will of the place . . . with a plucky insouciance he knew was available only to the elite," and even stages bed scenes for the benefit of the "Komitet. . . . Let's give them a good one," she tells Mac in his bugged flat.
Mac has re-created all of it for Kate, complete with dialogue in Russian with instant translation.
So her imagination has plenty to work with when, in late 1991, stopping off in Brussels on the way to a shoot in Turkey, they "unexpectedly" encounter the newly Westernized Lida, who monopolizes Mac to the point where Kate has him trailed by her cameraman.
Impressed in spite of herself with Lida's beauty, Kate fails to see thatshe has taken over the KGB role that Lida once ignored and now resents, and seeks advice from her friend Nan in New York. "Tell him you're as understanding as the next liberated woman, but Anna Karenina was more than you bargained for," Nan tells her.
But she doesn't confront Mac until she is in the weak role of would-be (but not quite) betrayer herself, having assumed Mac was unfaithful.
The book opens and closes with Kate in an editing room in the last hours of 1991, trying to cut together (as film editors say) her marriage from scraps of a film that she has unexpectedly fallen into and from the details of Mac's long-ago affair.
The sequence of delayed and gradually disclosed revelations from film, Mac's testimony and her own memories of her parents' bitter marriage is brilliantly managed (Kate comes from a family of viewers-through-looking-glasses, whether binoculars or cameras).
Ultimately she realizes she's "still running from the dinner table of my childhood to the bedroom closet, to sit out the storm . . . instead of fighting for my place at the table. . . . I shoot film, stick microphones in people's faces and make them tell me where it hurts.
"As if I don't already know. The bulletproof glass partitions between me and the hazards of real life . . . the pleasures of real life."
Title: "Safe Conduct"
Author: Elizabeth Benedict
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Length, price: 230 pages, $21