European intrigues executed by rich cast of characters

By Carlo Wolff
June 1, 2010

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‘The Same River Twice’’ is a philosophical entertainment doubling as a riveting, unconventional thriller. Largely set in a pre-European Union Paris and rendered with such painterly depth that the luminous city nearly becomes a character, Ted Mooney’s fourth novel explores issues of mutability against fixity, evolution against stasis, art against artifice, and the vexing allure of an affair against the security of marriage.

Mooney launches his dazzling tale in Moscow, where clothing designer Odile Mevel and her partner, Thierry Colin, have been dispatched to buy contraband, Soviet-era banners for an American hustler eager to cash in on the craze for all things iconic. On their way back to Paris to deliver the May Day pennants to the art dealer Turner, Thierry mysteriously disappears, leaving unclaimed his share of the payment promised to the pair. .

Meanwhile, Odile’s husband, Max Colby, a filmmaker, has discovered that someone has been making and distributing unauthorized copies of “Fireflies,’’ his best-known film. The bootlegs feature a different ending, however. Max mounts an inquiry into who might have perpetrated this fraud, which eventually points him in the direction of the Russian mafia.

There are many more meanwhiles, involving subjects as disparate as smuggled folk art and stem-cell research, but elaborating on them would disentangle too much of the web Mooney so expertly weaves. This is about trickery and deception; even the resolutions are ambiguous.

It also is about the dangerous romantic attractions in which Odile and Turner and, to a lesser extent, Max, indulge. And about the nature of creativity itself: An intriguing subplot in a work bursting with them centers on Max’s effort to raise his profile by making a new, reality-based kind of cinema starring “Isabelle H,’’ apparently a reference to French film star Isabelle Huppert.

The novel would not succeed without effective, closely observed characters, which Mooney, a former editor of Art in America, delivers in spades. He gets inside their heads, particularly Odile, a “cool customer’’ whose desires conflict with her need for stability; Turner, a canny salesman who bends the law to procure artistic currency; and a Russian entrepreneur named Kukushkin, whose operations straddle every world in this effortlessly worldly book.

Another aspect of this multilayered book involves Mooney’s ability to join reality to fantasy, lending a kind of surreal, dreamlike quality to portions of the book. For instance, when Max takes his daughter, Allegra, out for pastries, they pass a tour bus that has sideswiped a couple on a motorcycle. The dead lie in a pool of blood. Allegra experiences déjà vu, recalling a dream in which she and her father were on their way to eat pastry. She had to go to the bathroom, and they passed Japanese tourists and a “big kidney-shaped pool of blood,’’ and “a little boy with a soap-bubble wand ran by.’’

“Don’t worry, it’s just a feeling,’’ Max comforts Allegra. “A misfire of the mind, more or less. It’ll go away in a minute.’’

“ ‘But I don’t want it to go away,’ she informed him.

“He didn’t know what to say to this.

“They walked. A little boy with a plastic wand ran by trailing soap bubbles.’’

“The Same River Twice,’’ as its fragmentary title implies, succeeds because of its ambiguity; while the ending appears conventional, what led up to it remains mysterious. At its denouement, Odile, the core of the book, comes to terms with her past, and the novel concludes in shimmering, charged fashion.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer from Cleveland, can be reached at


By Ted Mooney

Knopf, 384 pp., $26.95