Kitty and Virgil.
Kitty is a Londoner who indexes nonfiction. Virgil is an exiled Romanian poet who sweeps for the city. In the late eighties, they meet by chance in the hospital, meet by chance again in the park, then dive into the most perfect affair of their lives. It is all over by the time communism falls. Virgil is still scarred by the regime he fled, but it is an older and more personal darkness that tears them apart.
Paul Bailey's brief novel fits a wealth of social history and family politics around his lovers. The hard parts of Kitty's past--raised by a single mother, a vain fashion model for a father--seem modest as the realities of life in Romania emerge. Virgil is a remarkable portrait of poetic temperament. A frail man being crushed by the brutality amok in his homeland, he possesses the strength to swim the Danube under gunfire.
We don't expect two mature people who have lead bohemian lives to feel pressured by family and society. We are shown how the right amount of tragic history can break the hearts of very independent characters. Kitty and Virgil are appealingly unpretentious, sincere, and witty. They are surrounded by mostly charming and entirely well-meaning urbanites. Why can't so many joyful episodes erase old pain? The final events of the book transform the story into a mystery. When life is going faultlessly, why do we sometimes let despair prevail?