She gave up New York for Harry two years earlier, when he was offered a job as special adviser to a fictional president; she secured a position as a speechwriter for the Vice President. “I knew I couldn’t let Harry move without me,” she says, “because, if I were to be honest, Harry was actually my life, and I loved him more than the rest of it.”
In Washington, that life falls apart. At first, Catherine ignores the fact that Harry won’t—or can’t—tell her anything about his job, but over time he grows more and more distant and immersed in his secretive work. Catherine blames Washington for transforming “New York Harry.” She hates the “countless bland, busy buildings that make up the city and its enterprise. . . . the rigorous sameness, and meek, day-to-day bloodletting . . . ”
One night, she comes home to find a stupefying note from Harry: “I will be gone on business for a week or longer. I will not be coming back here afterward. We will talk, of course, but you cannot change my mind on this & I feel it will be for the best.” After this blow, early in the novel, Catherine spends most of her time recounting memories of Harry and feeling sorry for herself rather than trying to find out where he is.
McConnell, who grew up here, describes Washington in vivid detail—from the Old Executive Office Building to Catherine’s apartment off Dupont Circle to her childhood home near the National Cathedral—but as seen through Catherine’s eyes, the overall portrait is bleak.
McConnell successfully creates suspense surrounding Harry’s mysterious job and disappearance. Passages from his perspective give snippets of information—he’s described as staying in the Waldorf-Astoria “on one of the two secure floors owned by the federal government”; later, he “wishes he had never met the two Russians who had so altered his life, had complete power over his future”—but little is revealed until the final pages.
Though most of the story is told though Catherine’s first-person narration, she remains enigmatic. In fact, all of the characters—including her mother, a dying coworker, and a friend in the Secret Service—are mere silhouettes. Washington itself is the strongest character, and it’s pure evil. Catherine’s G-rated affair with her boss, the widowed Vice President, is extraneous to the plot but a welcome distraction—both for her and for us—from her dwelling on every moment of her life with Harry.
The novel ends on an uplifting note, once Catherine abandons the villainous Washington for San Francisco. Perhaps McConnell’s harsh feelings about the city have roots in personal experience. At any rate, it’s not surprising that she now lives in London.