Foreign Correspondents isn’t dull. It’s rather grimly fascinating, like watching a car accident in slow motion. Very slow motion.
Clare is an emotionally-crippled Englishwoman who lives with a famous cricket star, Jeremy, and writes novels about people with fruitless, unfulfilled lives, much like her own. She’s not happy with Jeremy, but she plans to marry him anyway because she doesn’t know why she’s not happy. Carl is an impulsive American who grieves for his failed marriage. Like Clare, he is an unsuccessful novelist. For a hobby (tell me if you think this is plausible) he sends letters to random people he picks out of foreign phone books. Clare gets one, and she writes back. It is immediately apparent that they are perfect for each other: they’re both weird losers.
Carl and Clare embark upon an intimate, two-year correspondence. “The beauty of their relationship,” Clare thinks, “was the purity of it, their refusal to acknowledge the arbitrary aspects of each other, like ages and looks and social position.”
Clare shows the letters to her agent, Anna, not because she wants to publish them but because, being Clare, she requires affirmation that her relationship with Carl is as wonderful as she thinks it is. Carl, by an astonishing coincidence (and there will be many astonishing coincidences in this novel), also shows his letters to his agent, Art. Anna decides to set Clare and Carl up to meet on an exploitive television show.
Anna makes that decision on page 56. It doesn’t happen until page 102. Carl and Clare spend that time pondering their own navels, an activity that amuses them for pages on end. Sample: “I’m wandering around a mega department store called Life and I’m lost and even if I could locate a map I wouldn’t be able to find the pointing arrow, the You Are Here sign.” That’s Carl. Clare, Art, Clare’s friend Bernice, and Carl’s ex-wife Dee-Dee all engage in that sort of self-examination, too.
So eventually they all meet on the television show. For reasons I won’t bother you with, Art masquerades as Carl. Carl is in love with Clare. Art also falls in love with Clare. Bernice falls in love with Carl. Clare is open to the idea of cheating on Jeremy with Art, whom she thinks is Carl. Then she figures out that Carl is Carl and sleeps with him. Then, because she can’t make up her mind if she loves Carl or Jeremy (or maybe Art), she goes back to Jeremy.
Eight months go by.
That synopsis covers approximately the first half of the book. There are more big coincidences, more long periods of inaction ornamented only by the main characters’ doleful musings. There were moments when the plot became so contrived that I wondered if this is supposed to be a comedy. Then the narration would say something like this: “Faced with the terrible truths about her personality, Clare didn’t make herself go out and experience life, she took the easy, tried and trusted, option, she stayed hidden at home.” The only thing more depressing than that sentence’s meaning is its punctuation.
I believe Cindy Blake wants to say something about how relationships are complicated, and that it’s difficult to be honest with oneself. What she has succeeded in doing, however, is presenting a cast of characters who are selfish, dysfunctional, and clueless about how to behave towards other human beings. You could be raised by wolves and know how to act in a relationship better than Carl and Clare – he is possessive to the point of soul-sucking obsession, and she is manipulative and passive-aggressive and so out of touch with her own emotions that she can’t even tell if she’s happy or sad. It’s not interesting or revealing. It’s dismal.
The book ends with a grand slam of self-help-book style analysis, and Clare gets a HEA ending. Or at least, we’re told she’s in love with one of the male characters. Since Clare had done such an appalling job of handling her own relationships throughout this entire book, I was candidly not too confident about her future.
If you like fiction about imperfect people who struggle with complex and confusing relationships – and I admit that this is not my favorite type of book – then you might enjoy Foreign Correspondents more than I did. For my part, I found the characters unlikable, the plot contrived, and the pacing interminable.