Shelter in Place: A Novel
- By David Leavitt
- Bloomsbury Publishing
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Drew Gallagher
- October 13, 2020
Unable to stomach the newly elected President Trump, a wealthy Manhattanite seeks succor in Venice.
Shelter in Place is the novel John Updike would have written about the 2016 presidential election. More specifically, it is the novel he would have written about those angst-filled months between the election and the inauguration, when the majority of the country, based upon the popular vote, wondered what fresh hell awaited during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Updike, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, passed away in 2009, but David Leavitt has ably filled that void with a story that is more about the concept of Trump than the election itself.
Oh, the horror.
Eva and Bruce Lindquist seem to be living an idyllic life. They were college sweethearts who married early and rode Bruce’s rising status as a financial manager to a lifestyle that afforded them a stately apartment in Manhattan and a progression of weekend cottages in Connecticut.
Instead of children, they opted for Bedlington terriers. They are generous with their friends, and Eva delights in hosting weekend gatherings of people she deems interesting and, after the election, like-minded. But her dissatisfaction with the result of the election are obvious from the book’s outset when, at one said gathering, she asks her guests if any of them will ask Siri how to assassinate the president, whose name she refuses to speak.
They all express shock and then hesitancy because they’re convinced Big Brother is listening, and that such a query will result in the Secret Service showing up and whisking them away to Guantanamo. Ultimately, no one is willing to question Siri, and Eva’s disgust deepens.
(This intrepid reviewer, solely for the sake of art, asked both Siri and Alexa that very question, and they responded that Donald Trump is still alive — implying that my question was, “Has he been assassinated?” and not “How do you assassinate?” My attorney has counseled I should reiterate, preferably in boldface, that I conducted this exercise in the interest of readers and not because of any malicious intent. She thought it would also be helpful to mention that the only time I ever fired a gun was to propel a golf ball out of a modified rifle at a police charity golf tournament.)
Eva and Bruce’s Manhattan neighbor doesn’t share Eva’s distaste for Trump, as evidenced by the raucous election-night celebration heard through their common wall. This neighbor, being neighborly, invites them to his Trump inauguration party, which Eva takes as a thinly veiled opportunity to publicly mock her liberal ideals.
So, she decides to get far, far away from both the party and the inauguration by traveling to Venice with her best friend, Min. While there, Eva determines that if the Trump presidency is as bad as she imagines it will be (spoiler alert: It’s far worse), she’ll need a permanent escape beyond the walled-in borders of America.
With a little coaxing from Min, she decides to buy the apartment of a washed-up Venetian socialite who’s fallen on hard times. Eva calls the ever-obliging Bruce back in New York to tell him of her plans, and the foundation of their decades-old bond slowly starts to erode.
As Bruce and Eva’s relationship begins to change, the echoes of Updike, a master at mining the mundane, are loudest. Like Updike, Leavitt injects a welcome degree of humor and diversion into the proceedings via a supporting cast of clever friends.
Some might argue these characters are a bit too erudite and that no one actually speaks the way they do, such as in this book-industry tirade launched by a friend named Aaron after his publisher wife demurs when asked whether she’d publish the biography Eva started writing long ago:
“‘That sort of crap answer is the reason I’m glad to be out of publishing,’ Aaron said. ‘I mean listen to you. Out of one side of your mouth you play cheerleader — ‘Oh, Eva, you’ve got to write this book, you’ve got to write this book’ — and then out of the other it’s the usual namby-pamby publishing horseshit — ‘If it were up to me I’d love to, only the sales reps say this doesn’t sell, that doesn’t sell, no one reads biographies anymore, no one reads story collections anymore, no one ever read poetry in the first place,’ all anyone wants to read are books about what a little bitch Hillary Clinton is and quote-unquote graphic novels with no fucking words.”
The above rant soon flows seamlessly into an attack on the proliferation of Jonathans — Franzen, Lethem, Safran Foer — in modern literature. I imagine Aaron would’ve sung the praises of Updike at dinner parties if for no other reason than the author went by John.
As entertaining and droll as Shelter in Place is at moments, a troubling undercurrent flows through the novel like canals through Venice. The election of He Who Must Not Be Named has shaken real-life people to their cores. Like Bruce and Eva, many are left to question the very fundamentals of all they hold dear. David Leavitt’s book is a brilliant fiction, but the world he portrays is all too real.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia.