Love, going beyond the grave

The Baltimore Sun

The Third Angel

By Alice Hoffman

Shaye Areheart Books/Crown / 282 pages / $25

Is there an American novelist who understands the complicated and multifaceted nature of love in all its manifestations - romantic, familial, platonic - better than Alice Hoffman? Her last novel, Skylight Confessions, was a brilliant, haunting pictorial of broken families and broken hearts and how they are - or are not - mended.

Hoffman's 20th novel, The Third Angel, is a triptych about the overwhelming and all-consuming power of love that can extend even beyond the grave. Set in London in three different time frames - 1999, 1966 and 1952 - The Third Angel charts the lives of a series of women related through accident and chance geography. Each has landed at the Lion Park Hotel in London. Each has a complicated love story connected to the hotel and the other women.

Lucy Green's story begins in 1952, as a prepubescent longing for attention and obsessed with Anne Frank, years before she becomes the mother of Maddy and Allie. Frieda Lewis' love affair at 19 with Jamie, a seriously ill musician engaged to be married, takes place in 1966, the heyday of Carnaby Street and the British rock invasion. Frieda later becomes the mother of Paul, who is Allie's fiance and Maddy's lover. Allie is the 13 months older and ever-perfect sister to Maddy, who is selfish and self-absorbed and loves too much.

Each of these women is bound by love - of the wrong man, at the wrong time - and each is bound to the hotel and the ghost who wanders there, who may or may not be the third angel and who is indeed connected to Lucy Green's secret.

The novel opens on Maddy, a successful New York attorney who has just flown to London to help with older sister Allie's impending wedding to the terminally ill Paul. Unknown to Allie, however, Maddy has a secret: She is "madly, horribly, ridiculously in love" with Paul.

The novel then moves back in time to Frieda, then to Lucy and then to the revelatory moment that ties all four women together with a stunning inevitability that some call fate. This is indeed the stuff of soap opera, but in Hoffman's deft hand the legerdemain is transformational: We enter the lives of Maddy, Allie and each successive character with the full suspension of disbelief necessary to assure us that love can triumph over anything, including the complexities of life and the seeming finality of death.

Hoffman is not a magical realist per se, but her novels always incorporate an element of the supernatural or magical. The Third Angel has its haunted hotel as well as the ghosts of tragic loves past. There is the angel of life, the angel of death and that third angel, whom Frieda's father describes as the angel "who walked among us, who sometimes lay sick in bed, begging for human compassion."

Hoffman's characters are all, in their own ways, desperate for compassion and for the guiding light of an angel.

There is always someone dead or dying in a Hoffman novel; the metaphor of the mortality and immortality of love is one of her most compelling literary conceits. The ghosts in Hoffman's novels are palpably real, as is the one in The Third Angel. These ghosts evoke and invoke the transitory nature of love; they are breathlessly alive with their eternal, pulsing emotion driving them on, haunting their beloved as well as the reader, just as Heathcliff did Cathy - and generations of readers - on the English moor. They carry talismans of their love along with them, like the stones in The River King or the pearls in Skylight Confessions.

It's always difficult to describe a Hoffman plot without giving away the superlative surprises she interpolates into the midsection of each layered and multifaceted storyline. The Third Angel is no different. Both Maddy and Allie are in love with Paul, but only the love of one of the sisters will survive his death and bring him back to her. What did the ghost of Lion Park reveal to Frieda Lewis as she fell wildly and dangerously in love with her rock star, Jamie, writing songs for him to perform? Was Lucy Green (and the love triangle she inadvertently became a party to at the tender age of 12) the one who first brought the ghost to Lion Park? That ghost would touch each of the women's lives and become a signatory to their love affairs.

Some critics have minimized the complexity of Hoffman's work by referring to her, with a barely disguised sneer, as a romance writer. Well, Hoffman is a romance writer, but then so were Flaubert, Proust, the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. The Third Angel is indeed a romance, but one of intricacy and pathos, with characters beautifully, believably and empathetically drawn. These are women - and men - who have been touched by love as if branded against their will; they bear the mark of their love on their hearts, irrevocably.

The Third Angel is filled with the intricacies we have come to expect from Hoffman - the interconnections, the chance meetings, the coincidences that seem improbable and yet wholly necessary. There is an abundance of love, but also an almost superfluity of tragedy. This is love as descant: a haunting refrain that can neither be denied nor forgotten. As Jamie tells Frieda one impassioned afternoon, "We have only one life in this world, so we have to follow our desires."

Hoffman understands the temporality of life and the incandescent nature of love. The Third Angel represents yet another strong, visceral and deeply, darkly moving tale of love and heartbreak, tragedy and redemption from a writer whose keen ear for the measure struck by the beat of the human heart is unparalleled. The Third Angel is an intense, provocative and thoroughly affecting novel.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is currently at work on a novel about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

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