(Reviewed by Mike Frechette OCT 19, 2008)
“I know how fragile reputations in this town can be. People rise and fall, and usually they don’t rise again.”
Though published over a year ago, Jeffrey Frank’s novel Trudy Hopedale deserves even more attention now in the run-up to the Presidential election. A satire of Washington, Frank’s novel depicts the city in its truest form, as a place full of conniving careerists hungry for power and fame. For those weary of the bombastic speeches about change and patriotism, Trudy Hopedale is a breath of fresh air, reminding readers that D.C. is also about greed and ambition.
The story spans from spring 2000 to late summer 2001, just as the Clintons were leaving office and George W. Bush was taking their place. Trudy Hopedale and the handsome Donald Frizzé – the two main characters whose alternating first-person narratives comprise the novel – are both members of an elite Washington circle. Trudy, a silly, ambitious woman, hosts a morning talk-show called Trudy’s People. Donald, often a guest on the show, is a historian whose work focuses on the neglected lives of America’s vice-presidents. The novel begins with both characters at the center of their circle, but they are standing on the outside by the story’s end. In a quick read with straightforward prose, Frank shows his readers that enough time in Washington will not only change administrations but also destroy careers and reputations.
In her own narrative sections, Trudy reveals that she hails from humble roots in the Motor City. She married her husband, Roger Hopedale, perhaps for love, but mostly to achieve and secure a social promotion. This security begins to wither, though, as her marriage falters and a younger, more attractive co-host plays an increasingly larger role on her talk-show. Donald, on the other hand, was born into security. He comes from Pennsylvania, where his father invented the Frizzé scalpel and bestowed upon his son a life of financial freedom. Nevertheless, once rumors questioning his integrity as a scholar begin to gain traction, Donald lives with an increasing anxiety that his reputation might soon be ruined.
The novel contains other colorful characters as well with equally Dickensian names. Jennifer Pouch, a ruthless journalist and once admirer of Donald’s, turns on him after he refuses her sexual advances. Royal Arsine, a poisonously sinister, beady-eyed individual, spends much of his time trying to acquire the manuscript of a novel recently penned by Trudy’s husband. And Henrietta Hopedale – Roger’s indecorous, old mother – insists she had an affair with a well-known politician from America’s past.
As the story progresses, the adolescent self-centeredness of these characters comes into focus as Frank’s primary satirical target. Trudy and Donald more than once refer to D.C. as their “town,” and they complain about its smallness, an inappropriate descriptor for a city with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of inhabitants. If they cannot escape from running into the same old people and hearing the same banal gossip, it is because they never venture outside of their elite little circle. For Trudy and Donald, the city’s other inhabitants barely warrant notice or description. In several instances, they refer to waiters merely as “a Somalian waiter” or “a tall Arab-looking man in a white robe.” The reader cannot help but smirk just a little at such narcissists when they start to see themselves as the outsiders. As Trudy says, “And who was I? I asked myself. I asked that question as if I were about to disappear, to leave the landscape of my city just as surely as Woodies and Peoples Drugstore and Walter Mondale – everything in our town that had once seemed so lasting and unshakably solid.”
While deserving of such criticism, Donald and especially Trudy also elicit sympathy from the reader. When not gossiping or self-obsessing, Trudy can actually be quite insightful, giving readers a glimpse into why she married Roger and fled a traditional life in the suburbs. Few readers can argue with the biting logic of this confession: “I know that sounds snobbish, which is the last thing a girl from Detroit could ever be, but there is something about those places – people mowing their lawns and going to Home Depot to get things to make their lawns grow faster – that I’ve tried to get away from for most of my life.” Though annoyingly egotistical, many readers will nonetheless pity Trudy since the reasons for her ambitious social climbing seem so sincere and reasonable.
In a literary scene now inundated with post-9/11 novels, Frank instead explores the immediately preceding period. For this reviewer, though, the D.C. of 2008 seems very similar to the Washington depicted in the novel. With the exception of a brief interlude of solemn national unity after September 11th, Americans eight years later remain just as frivolous and personally ambitious. In 2000, opportunists like Trudy were capitalizing on Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions while many seemed only moderately concerned about President Bush’s intellect. Almost one decade and a terrorist attack later, the public conversation is still trivial, most recently centering around pigs and lipstick. Like all good satirists, Frank takes aim at the people of a very specific time and place while also managing to make universal criticisms of human nature. Trudy Hopedale is a novel that will make sense to readers for generations to come.
- Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Jeffrey Frank
- MediaBistro interview with Jeffrey Frank
- Moleskinerie: Jeffrey Frank on Creativity in Copenhagen
- Bookreporter review of The Columunist
- Washington Post review of Trudy Hopedale
- The New York Observer review of Trudy Hopedale
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About the Author:
Jeffrey Frank was born in Baltimore, Md., has held various jobs, including editor at The Washington Star and The Washington Post. He is now a senior editor at The New Yorker. He published his first novel when he was 22 years old and never loss the bug for fiction.
A Danish speaker, he collaborated with his Danish-born wife, Diana Crone Frank, on The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen: A New Translation From the Danish, which has been published in the United States and England. He wrote the foreword to the University of Chicago Press's re-issue of Peter De Vries's The Blood of the Lamb.
He lives in Manhattan with Diana. They have one son.