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  • Written by Louis Begley
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  • Written by Louis Begley
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Matters of Honor

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A Novel

Written by Louis BegleyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Louis Begley

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On Sale: January 23, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-26731-3
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

“Terrifically intelligent, moving, and entertaining.”
–The New York Sun


“With snappy dialogue [and] intelligent prose . . . Begley paints a memorable portrait of lasting friendship and of the strength required to step outside of the expectations that surround each of us.”
–Rocky Mountain News

At the beginning of the 1950s, three disparate young men are thrown together as roommates at Harvard College: Henry White, a Polish-Jewish refugee who survived World War II by hiding in Poland; Archibald P. Palmer III, an Army brat; and Sam Standish, ostensibly the scion of a fine New England family who has just learned that he was adopted at birth by parents he cannot respect. Each seeks to come to terms with his identity or to remake it altogether. Henry’s task is especially daunting: He is determined to live as an American, free of the shackles of his hideous past. But reinvention is a bargain with the devil, and over the years each will find that it comes at a high cost, challenging one’s honor and loyalty to parents, friends, and ultimately oneself.

“Absorbing . . . In full Henry James mode, Begley uses a lucid prose style to dispassionately eviscerate the upper classes even as he illuminates the true meaning of friendship.”
–Booklist

“The final moral crisis of Henry’s life [is] gorgeously evoked. . . . Begley’s analysis of class and anti-Semitism in America is often brilliant.”
–The Washington Post Book World

“A moving tale . . . [Begley’s] technique demands attention–and richly rewards it.”
–The New York Observer

“An elegant novel of enduring friendship.”
–Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Excerpt

Chapter 1

This is my first memory of Henry: I stand at the door of one of the three bedrooms of the ground floor suite in the college dormitory to which I have been assigned. At the open window, with his back to me, a tall, slender, red-haired boy is leaning out and waving to someone. He has heard my footsteps, turns, and beckons to me saying, Take a look, a beautiful girl is blowing kisses to me. I've never seen her before. She must be mad.

I went to the window. Not more than ten feet away, a girl standing on the grass was indeed blowing kisses and waving her hand in the direction of our window. Between kisses, she grinned, her mouth made to seem very large by a thick layer of red lipstick. She wore a suit of beige tweed, dark green stockings, and a Tyrolean hat with a little pheasant feather. A couple of paces away from her I saw a middle-aged woman, in darker tweeds and a brown fedora. Something about her—the hat? an air of haughty distinction?—made me think of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, about to board the plane for Lisbon. I assumed, partly on account of their similar dress, that she was the girl's mother.

Several undergraduates had stopped on the path leading diagonally to the far corner of the Widener and were gawking at the scene. Neither the daughter's antics nor the audience they had attracted seemed to disturb the mother. But after a few more minutes she said something in a voice too low for us to hear, and the girl, having blown one more kiss, threw up her arms in theatrical despair. They strolled away.

I'm in love, sighed the red-haired boy. I want to throw myself at her feet.

Why don't you? I replied, only half kidding. It's not too late. Climb out the window right now and you won't even have to run to catch them.

Oh no, he wailed, I can't. Why did this have to happen today, when I'm not prepared?

As there wasn't a trace of irony in his voice or expression, I should have let the subject drop. Instead, I told him that, while a formal declaration might be premature, no harm could come of his proposing a cup of coffee in the Square.

He shook his head bitterly. I don't dare, he said. Don't you see how splendid she is? Penthesilea in tweeds! None but the son of Peleus could tame her. I am unworthy even of her scorn.

His face was a mask of discouragement.

I suppose that I shrugged. That or perhaps the expression on my face must have told him that I thought he had gone overboard. He recomposed his face into a bland smile and said, I suppose you are one of my roommates. I'm Henry White . . . from New York.

I had met New Yorkers before, mainly at school, although a number of New York families had summerhouses in the vicinity of Lenox, where my parents and I lived, and in the neighboring Berkshire towns of Stockbridge, Great Barrington, and Tyringham. This fellow didn't sound like any of them. He didn't mispronounce. In fact his speech was oddly slow and accurate, except when he got excited, as during the Peleus routine, with a thickness around the edge of words suggesting a dry mouth. It occurred to me that he might be some kind of foreigner, but, if he had an accent, I couldn't identify it. My notions of how foreigners spoke derived at the time exclusively from the movies and the French family with whom I had just spent the summer in a small town north of Paris. That Henry White of New York didn't have a French accent was quite clear.

I confirmed that I was indeed his roommate and, having introduced myself as Sam Standish, examined Henry more closely. His clothes were wrong; they looked brand-new. The jacket and trousers were of an odd color. Other than that, he was a fine-looking fellow. Is Sam short for Samuel? he asked me earnestly. He nodded when I confirmed that this was the case.

I hadn't had lunch and asked whether he would like to have a sandwich with me in the Square. He said that he had already eaten at the Freshman Union. I went out alone.

Courses weren't going to start for another couple of days, but the dormitories were open, and freshman orientation was in progress. I had assured my mother that I could get down to Cambridge by bus, even with my big footlocker. To my surprise, she had insisted that she really wanted to drive me down. But since she and my father were going out to dinner that evening, she wouldn't have lunch with me. She gave me a couple of bills, the cost of lunch for two by her reckoning, and sped off as soon as I had unpacked the car trunk. I had dragged my stuff into the living room of the suite and saw that I wasn't the first to arrive. Someone's luggage was in the middle of the room. Then I stuck my head into one of the bedrooms and came upon Henry.

After a solitary tuna-salad sandwich at Hayes-Bickford, I returned to the dormitory. Henry may have been watching for me at the window. In any event, he opened the door of the suite before I could turn the key in the lock and said he was glad I had come back so soon. He had a practical question he wanted to ask: Did I care which bedroom he took? He had spent the previous night in the one I had found him in but didn't think that gave him any sort of prior claim. He asked me to follow him to the bedroom he wanted and pointed to the right toward a dark brick classroom building shaped like a whale.

That's Sever, he said, an H. H. Richardson design, and over here, right in front of us, is Memorial Church.

I said that he could keep the room. The three bedrooms were all the same size, and I didn't care about the view. That Sever was a masterpiece of late-nineteenth-century American architecture was unknown to me then, but I don't think that knowing it would have made any difference. I didn't expect to spend much time at the window. Henry, very pleased, sat on my desk chair while I unpacked. When I finished, he helped me make the bed.

The ice had been broken, it seemed, so I asked why he hadn't at least spoken to the girl. After all, she was blatantly trying to pick him up. Henry shook his head and said it was out of the question. The timing was fatally wrong. He might have followed her to find out whether she went to Radcliffe, and in which dorm she lived, but his conspicuous red hair ruled that out. People recognized him instantly. If the girl or her mother had turned around and seen him, they'd know it was he and would think he was some kind of nut who couldn't understand a joke. That would have spoiled everything. He would have to wait.

You're nuts, I told him. There is no possible harm in her and her mother's knowing that you'd like to shake the hand of the girl who took the trouble to blow kisses at you.

He shook his head again. Timing, he said, timing. The stars aren't aligned. I have to wait.

It was none of my business, and probably I should have known enough not to insist on a subject that made him uneasy. But as I was condemned to room with Henry for a year, I thought I was entitled to investigate whether he was a pompous jerk or really deranged.

These questions did not preoccupy me long. Within a couple of weeks, Henry decided that we were close friends—a conclusion I had not yet reached—and he began to unburden himself to me about his feelings with such unsparing frankness and volubility that I sometimes found myself wishing I hadn't done whatever had put him so at ease. Unprompted by me, he spoke again about the girl and acknowledged his behavior as peculiar. It wasn't shyness, he insisted, that had stopped him in his tracks, but a conviction that he must make himself suitable first or face inevitable rejection—not only by this girl and her mother but by every other girl he might find attractive.

And it's not just girls, he said, I mean rejected by everyone here! Do you remember the Raymond Massey character in Arsenic and Old Lace, the one whom Dr. Einstein, the Peter Lorre character, made into a monster by botching the operation on his face? Raymond Massey is me. I too have been botched. And therefore I say: Dr. Einstein, we must operate again!

I said this was more evidence that he was nuts.

He shook his head and said that observations he had made during just two meals, dinner and lunch, that he had eaten alone at the Union, before I arrived to find him standing at the window, had confirmed his fears. He was hopelessly out of place in this world of creatures like the girl or me for that matter. He had watched the freshmen milling about the place, studied their appearance and manner, and saw no one like him. Certainly no one dressed like him. Or, put another way, no one he would have wanted to know who looked anything like him or had equally disastrous clothes.

While recounting these experiences, he laughed so hard he had tears in his eyes. I didn't know what to make of this and suggested that his survey of the freshman class might not be scientific. Henry said that could be. But as I would come to see, in fact Henry missed little of what went on and, as a rule, remembered everything. For now he granted my point and reduced his claim: the Freshman Union survey had confirmed what he had already realized at home, before leaving for Cambridge, when his mother was packing the things he was to take with him to college. I was by then familiar with them: a sky-blue suit he had worn at his high school graduation, a tan flannel jacket, and two pairs of brown trousers. His mother had chosen every item, and every item was too large because she expected him to grow into it and seemed unwilling to admit that he had reached his full height. He had begged to be allowed to buy his clothes in Cambridge or Boston once he knew how other people dressed, but she wouldn't hear of it: he was too irresponsible and extravagant, and he had no appreciation of quality. Besides, he said, the way she looks at it, it's my father's money and she is entitled to the fun of spending it. That's how she has gotten me to look like an underage bookkeeper.

By that time, I had gotten used to Henry's wardrobe, but when I recalled our first meeting, and the impression he had made on me, I couldn't deny that he had good reason not to want the girl to see him in one of those outfits. Not if he wanted to make the best possible impression.

To go back to that afternoon, after making my bed we inspected the luggage of our missing roommate in the living room. It consisted of a steamer trunk and a large pigskin suitcase, both so scuffed up that they would have seemed proof of exotic travel even without the stickers of the Normandie, Queen Mary, and various hotels with resonant names that had been glued to them. The owner, to judge by the tag attached to the trunk handle, was Archibald P. Palmer III. The name was followed by an APO address. My father had been in the service during the war, and APO was a familiar institution. I explained to Henry that we would have an army brat living with us. It wasn't the military postal service, however, that intrigued him. He wanted to know whether we should infer from the Roman numerals that our roommate belonged to high society. He was inclined to think so, based on engagement and wedding announcements he had read in The New York Times. It wasn't unusual, he said, to find for instance that Mr. Ebenezer Witherspoon III, the elder son of Ebenezer Witherspoon II, a collector of Americana and a yachtsman, with homes in Cold Spring, Long Island, Manhattan, and Palm Beach, Florida, and great-grandson of Ebenezer Witherspoon, a business partner of Commodore Vanderbilt, was to be married to the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Sperry Rand IV, with homes in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and likewise Manhattan.

True enough, I told him, but as Roman numerals were not unheard of among less elevated classes, I suggested that we withhold judgment until we had met Mr. Palmer.

We went to dinner at the Union and afterward saw, at the University Theater, a stupid movie that I have completely forgotten. A raucous party was in progress across the hall in the dormitory when we got back. Through an open door, someone yelled an invitation to come in for a drink. Having wormed out of Henry over dinner that he had graduated from some public high school in Brooklyn, I assumed that he might be reluctant to plunge into a room full of boisterous prep school jocks. However, he seemed game to meet them, and we went in. I had one beer before the noise drove me out. On my way to the door I looked around the room for Henry. A drink in hand, he seemed to be managing well enough; in fact he looked as though he were having a good time.

Our third roommate arrived the following day in the late afternoon. I was present when, animated by the importance of getting this sort of thing right, he explained to Henry the origin of his Roman numeral. He had the same first name and middle initial as his father and paternal grandfather. That made him the third, whereas had he been named after his father, without a grandfather or great-grandfather also named Archibald P., he would have been Archibald P. Palmer Jr., like his father, the colonel, and he further explained that, had he been named for a grandfather, without an intervening Archibald P. father, he would have been Archibald P. Palmer II. His own firstborn son would be IV, he had decided, and would be called Quartus by the family. I had the feeling that Archie (that is what he asked us to call him) realized that Henry was after something more than a recitation of rules laid down by Emily Post, but for the moment that was all he seemed inclined to reveal.


From the Hardcover edition.
Louis Begley|Author Q&A

About Louis Begley

Louis Begley - Matters of Honor

Photo © Bettina Straus

Louis Begley lives in New York City. His previous novels are Wartime Lies, The Man Who Was Late, As Max Saw It, About Schimdt, Mistler’s Exit, Schmidt Delivered, and Shipwreck.

Author Q&A

BETWEEN FACT AND FICTION
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
It is engendered in the eyes,
With gazing fed, and fancy dies
In the cradle, where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy’s knell.
I’ll begin it–Ding dong bell.

–William Shakespeare,
The Merchant of Venice

So sing Portia’s musicians, at Belmont, her vast domain, while Bassanio ponders which casket he must open–gold, silver, or lead–if he is to win Portia’s hand and fortune. Their questions are not unlike those that readers ask of novelists about their novels: How did the idea of writing your book occur to you? How much of it is based on your life? Matters of Honor has provoked its fair share of them, most frequently put to me after readings I have given from that book. I rejoice in contacts with my readers, so I have answered them extemporaneously with results that have seemed to me uneven. This is my first attempt to provide a coherent response.

Some time after I had published my first novel, Wartime Lies, my wife, Anka Muhlstein, who is a French historian and biographer, suggested that I should consider writing about how I had set about becoming an American after I arrived in the United States from Poland in March 1947, at the age of thirteen. I replied that I liked her idea, and was already working on it. I was referring to my second novel, The Man Who Was Late, the protagonist of which is Ben, a brilliantly successful and tormented young man, Jewish like me, who after surviving the war in an unnamed Central European country streaks like a comet through the firmament of Harvard College, the Marine Corps, and Wall Street only to crash disastrously in consequence of an unhappy and impossible love affair. That novel, of which I am inordinately fond, could have been the sort of book my wife had in mind, but I had become too engrossed by the destructive relationship between Ben and the woman he loves, and too obsessed by aesthetic concerns–the need I felt for the action of that novel to proceed at a gallop–to pay sufficient attention to the great theme of Americanization. I suppose that I thought, correctly as it turned out, that I would one day turn to it.

An opportunity presented itself in the period that followed the completion of my seventh novel, Shipwreck. My mother’s health had been declining steeply; in fact, she would die soon afterward. I couldn’t avoid thinking intensively about the past, not only the wartime years in Poland but also the years that followed my family’s and my arrival sixty years ago in New York City; Harvard College, which I entered in 1950; army service from 1954 to 1956; Harvard Law School; and the slow resolution of many internal conflicts tearing at me that had their roots in my early youth. As I immersed myself in those memories I began to see that my efforts to become an American had been only one facet of a larger experience that I had shared with others. I was thinking in particular of the man who was my Harvard College roommate from our freshman year until graduation, whose background, ambitions, and destiny were totally different from mine, as well as of other students who had been close friends. We had all embarked on the great adventure of self-reinvention, of remaking ourselves as nearly as such a thing was possible in the likeness of the secret or not-so-secret imago we had chosen. My own reinvention was complicated by the anti-Semitism that was then prevalent in the United States, and the impression I had that normal Americans couldn’t comprehend my experiences during the war and weren’t especially interested in hearing about them.

These assertions may sound strange in the first decade of the twenty-first century, but I am speaking of a time–end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s–when the word “Holocaust” had not yet been applied to the slaughter of European Jews, and it wasn’t clear that Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, and the other furnaces of Moloch were a fit subject for polite conversation.

Thus I came gradually to the decision that the novel about Americanization my wife had “commissioned” and I had in mind would need a wider focus. That a young man whose origins were like mine–Henry White in Matters of Honor–would be at the center of the stage could be taken for granted; I wanted also a personage not unlike my roommate during the four years at Harvard College. He became Archibald P. Palmer III, or Archie, as he wished to be called. I could see fairly distinctly the trajectories of those two young men, including the rather surprising dénouement of Henry’s career. But I didn’t know how the story should be told. When I first tried to write it in the first person, from the point of view of Henry, the result dismayed me. What I had set down was flat and lifeless. I wondered whether I shouldn’t abandon Henry and Archie and move on to a different story. Then Sam Standish, the third roommate, came into my life and I realized that he was the inevitable narrator. He gave me the opening to speak of a milieu I know and find amusing: the “good” families in the Berkshires. Ostensibly a WASP with the right name and the right manners, he could provide the distance from Henry’s specific preoccupations that I thought was necessary. At the same time, he would be secretly as much an outsider as Henry. I would accomplish that by making him an adopted son of parents he doesn’t respect and by raising a doubt about his sexual orientation. To top it off, Sam would be a novelist, therefore qualified professionally to tell this complex story in which he is an actor as well as an observer.

My biography is available to all. Every reader is in a position to draw the obvious conclusion, that Henry’s curriculum vitae on the surface corresponds to mine: We were both Jewish children born in Poland in the early 1930s, and during World War II were in great danger of being killed by Germans; both of us came to the United States in the late
1940s, settled in Brooklyn, N.Y., and after a passage at a Brooklyn public high school moved on to Harvard College and Harvard Law School; we served in the U.S. army. After law school, like Henry, I went to work for a first-class New York law firm, and like Henry I had what I might describe, if modesty didn’t prevent it, as a brilliant legal career. But the superficial resemblance stops when Henry and I go to work: Unlike Henry, I was hired by my firm on my merits, and welcomed with open arms; unlike Henry, I did not find that I had reached the apogee of professional success only to look into an abyss. Like Sam, I have become a novelist; Henry didn’t.

There are innumerable other fundamental differences between Henry and me. They include relations with my parents–to whose memory I dedicated Matters of Honor–the women I have loved, and my children and the joy they have brought into my life. If I were to attempt to list them I would probably obscure the essential point, which the reader is invited to take on faith: I am not a character in a novel, and Henry is not me. I invented him–as I have invented everyone else, with the exception of historical figures, in Matters of Honor and in my other works–using materials taken from my life and from the lives of others whom I have known, but all such materials have been deconstructed and reformed by my imagination. Of course, some personages owe more to living models than others. Archie is greatly indebted to my college roommate; I have intimated as much. Henry’s parents resemble my parents, albeit imperfectly. Sam Standish is not modeled on anyone in particular. He is a pure product of my fancy, but I have poured into him a great deal of myself. That infusion was dictated in part by his having become a writer; a similar case is John North, the novelist narrator of my novel Shipwreck who, in that novel, speaks for me on all literary matters. Sam’s parents are almost completely invented, except for one or two indispensable traits. Many years ago I knew in the Berkshires a stoop-shouldered, sexily thin woman whom I had in mind when I wrote about Sam’s mother, while a Texan I knew slightly provided me with the diction of Sam’s father. There are no identifiable models for Sam’s very proper cousin, George Standish, or for the fascinating and dangerous Margot. No doubt I have known people George and Margot resemble in one detail or another, cases in point being the clothes Margot wears and her half lazy and half haughty way of talking through her nose. Harvard College in Matters of Honor is very much like the college I remember. In three instances I refer to real people who were very prominent there at the time: Harry Levin, Renato Poggioli, and Bob Chapman, each of them an admired member of the faculty. There is no single model for the odious Belgian magnate, Hubert de Sainte-Terre. Like his billionaire colleague, Mike Mansour, who prowls the pages of my Schmidt Delivered, he was derived from several hugely rich men I have known. However, unlike Mansour and Sainte-Terre, none of those men was any good at business. The most striking characteristics that those real-life moguls share with my characters are their egotism, conceit, and frivolity. I am especially proud of the moment when Sainte-Terre reveals the consequence of thumbing his figurative nose at the French government that has really gotten to him: He won’t be promoted to the next higher grade in the Légion d’honneur! This mishap is 100 percent invented and yet I believe that it is also 100 percent accurate. Each of the moguls I have known would have found it to be the unkindest cut of them all.

So this is how fancy is bred and nourished. I could carry the investigation of the real-life content of my novel further, and it is safe to say that every detail in my descriptions, every personality trait of my characters has some real-life antecedent. The question I have to put to myself, however, is whether research of this sort, amusing for me because it is so much like gossip about acquaintances and friends I haven’t seen for a long time, is of any value to the reader. The truth it reveals, that I am present in my novel, should be obvious without it. How could it be otherwise? As Franz Kafka put it to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, urging her half seriously not to be jealous of his characters, the creation of whom he devoted so much of his time, “the novel is me, the stories are me. . . .”

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Harvard College in the 1950s is a vivid setting for the first part of Matters of Honor. Could this novel have taken place at another institution, or does Harvard have a unique significance?

2. Henry says: “Margot and Margot’s parents are way up at the top of the tree. We’re way down here at the roots. But that’s the one tree I will learn to climb. Otherwise there is no point in my being here” (p. 51). How would you describe the social hierarchy portrayed in this novel? What do you think Henry means by “here”? Harvard? America? Or something else?

3. Archie’s ambitions seem to reflect the values not of his own parents, but of Sam’s. He aspires to their 100 percent respectability. That status being unattainable to him, he settles for the trappings of high society, and the reckless, irresponsible behavior that tends to follow them. Why, then, do you think Sam is drawn to Archie as a friend? What makes Archie different from the Standishes?

4. Before matriculating at Harvard, Sam learns that he had been adopted. What is Sam’s reaction to this startling revelation? Both his physical appearance and the secret trust fund paying for his education suggest that he might still have blood ties to the Standish family. Why do you think Begley included these details?

5. On a weekend vacation at the Standish household, George forces himself on Margot while she is sleeping. How does she handle the situation? Does he take responsibility for his actions and feel that he has done something wrong? If this incident had taken place today instead of back in the 1950s do you think Margot might have responded differently?

6. Sam’s romantic life is not spelled out in the novel, but it is implied that he is a homosexual. Why do you think he is so guarded about his sexuality? Why do think that Begley chose not to explore these undertones further? Are there any similarities between Sam’s relationship with sex and Henry’s relationship with Judaism?

7. Sam develops a long-standing dependancy on psychoanalysis, stemming from his “nervous breakdown” at Harvard. Why is he so drawn to this kind of therapy? How, if at all, do you think it helps him?

8. At the beginning of the novel, the trio of roommates share an important relationship. How do things change after Archie’s death? What do you think is Archie’s role in the novel? How was Archie important to the development of Sam and Henry’s relationship?

9. At the beginning of the novel, Henry says: “I feel no more Jewish than a smoked ham” (p. 31). And at the end he says, “You might rightly ask what my self-negation got me. My Jewism is still with me, like bad breath . . . I have gotten nothing, zero, or less than zero” (p. 291). What part do you think Henry’s unease with his past and identity played in the destructive relationship between him and Hubert de Sainte-Terre? Do you think Henry could have shaped his life differently once he had arrived at Harvard?

10. Henry’s lifelong infatuation with Margot is one of his most defining characteristics. Even after she marries, Henry finds himself unable to move on. “I can’t tell any of those ladies, even the ones I like most and respect, that I love her more than anything else on earth and want to marry her. Not with Margot in the rue Barbet de Jouy” (256). Why do you think Henry is so drawn to Margot? Why is she drawn to him? Why does their relationship consistently fail?

11. Near the end of the novel, Margot blames Sam for Henry’s unhappiness, saying: “You and Archie taught him all those tricks. Like a bear in the circus. Why didn’t you all leave him alone? Why did you help him become an honorary Aryan?” (301) Do you agree with her? Would Henry have been better off without Sam? Without Margot?

12. Names are significant in Matters of Honor, often representing the personal struggles that the characters face. Sam’s surname, for example, ties him to a family about whom he feels ambivalent. Archie’s name has a deceptively aristocratic ring to it. And Henry’s name has the ability to adapt in whatever way he chooses. At the end of the novel, he tells Sam that “Leblanc is no more my name than White, but everyone here knows that I wasn’t born Leblanc and no one cares. Although my French is easily as good as my English, people realize that I’m a foreigner. That defines me. There’s nothing to explain; no one to betray” (306). As the novel concludes, how do you think each character has lived up to or forsaken his name? What does the future hold for the next generation of characters–Margot’s Henry and Henry’s Sam?


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