cover image Safe Conduct

Safe Conduct

Elizabeth Benedict. Farrar Straus Giroux, $21 (230pp) ISBN 978-0-374-25341-7

A woman's fear of her husband's former lover, and her terror that his reawakened passion could destroy their marriage, drives this urgent but carefully controlled novel by the author of The Beginner's Book of Dreams . Kate Lurie is a documentary photographer whose films concern ``people who have suffered enormous losses.'' She is newly married to Eli MacKenzie, who is still grieving over the death of his son. Kate herself was for a long time afraid to enter into a binding relationship; now she feels Mac's pulse while he sleeps, sure that ``something so wonderful could not last through the night.'' Mac has told her about his torrid three-week affair with luscious Lida in St. Petersburg, where he was sent by the State Department in 1971. But Kate is unprepared for the shock of an encounter with Lida, who, 15 years after she and Mac had parted, confronts the couple in Brussels and boldly tempts Mac to be unfaithful. Benedict subtly contrasts the distrust and paranoia of the Cold War, when Mac and Lida met, with Kate's jealousy and growing panic. Kate's voice is electric with suspicion and dread as she recounts the incidents that bring her marriage to crisis. But there is a basic lack of credibility in Mac's self-indulgent behavior, and the secret Lida reveals comes as no surprise; in addition, other events seem schematic and predictable. Benedict nicely evokes her settings, however: St. Petersburg's phantasmagorical White Nights provide the background for Mac and Lida's romance; the later lover's triangle is played out in rainy Brussels. And her spare narrative reflects the tension of a frightened woman witnessing what may be the destruction of her happiness. (May)