Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Portuguese Escape - Ann Bridge

After I finished reading The Lighthearted Quest, the first of the Julia Probyn series by Ann Bridge, I could barely wait to read the second book. As the title suggests, this time Julia's in Lisbon, covering a royal wedding for one of her newspapers. Naturally she's staying with the bride's family which gives her an entreé into high society. Julia's friend, Major Hugh Torrens, who she met in Morocco when she was searching for her missing cousin, Colin, is also in Lisbon. He works for British Intelligence & has been given the task of getting a Hungarian priest, Father Antal Horvath, out of Communist Hungary to the United States so that he can tell the West what's really happening behind the Iron Curtain. He must go through Portugal because the Vatican has an emissary there to talk to him about the fate of a Cardinal imprisoned by the Communists.

As the book begins, another Hungarian refugee is making headlines. Young Countess Hetta Páloczy was left behind when her parents had to suddenly flee during the Soviet invasion. Hetta has spent the last six years first in her convent school & then, when the convents were shut down, working as a cook in a country village for Father Horvath. At the age of 22, she arrives in Lisbon as the result of an exchange & is reunited with her mother, a social climbing woman who would give her right arm for an invitation to the royal wedding which is the only topic of conversation at cocktail parties & receptions. Hetta is truly an innocent abroad but she knows her own mind. She refuses to speak to journalists when she first arrives, insists on an explanation for everything asked of her &, although she has nothing in common with her mother & her values, she is intent on rebuilding their relationship. Hetta's stories of life under Communist rule could make her a celebrity but she refuses to talk to idle people who see her as just the new sensation,

The fact was that Hetta Páloczy found herself rather up against the western world as presented to her at Estoril in many of its aspects, of which the social ease, the urbane worldly wisdom of her mother's confessor was most definitely one. The richly-dressed congregation at Mass on Sundays, with shiny cars waiting outside, the interior richness of the churches themselves, with all their treasures displayed, not hidden away in the deep reed thatch of some peasant's house for security - the very safety of it all jarred on her, after the passionate devotion of the people at home, holding with such stubborn intensity to the practice of their religion in the face of persecution and danger.

Richard Atherley, Secretary to the British Ambassador in Lisbon, takes Hetta under his wing & his protective feelings soon become something more. When Torrens asks Hetta to help him identify Father Horvath, she is pleased to think she will see her mentor again but Atherley begins to realise the danger she may be in as they are followed around Lisbon by thugs who speak Spanish with German accents. His fears are realised when Hetta is kidnapped on her way to visit Father Horvath at Gralheira, the Duke of Ericeira's country estate where Julia has arranged  for him to stay until he can leave the country. A further emotional complication is that Richard's former mistress, the elegant Mme de Vermeil has arrived in Lisbon for the royal wedding, & Hetta soon discovers their relationship.

The Portuguese Escape is a terrific adventure story with car chases, espionage & a plot so convoluted that I can't even begin to summarise it. The descriptions of Lisbon & the countryside are wonderful, it's almost like reading a beautifully written travel narrative at times & the reader learns of the culture & some of the history of Portugal as well. This isn't the kind of thriller that could be set anywhere. Even the car chases are written so that we can enjoy the countryside they're all racing through. Julia is magnificent as always. She has the Duke & his family completely entranced & has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Portuguese road networks that mere mortals can only marvel at. I could barely turn the e-pages fast enough to find out what would happen next. I've already downloaded the rest of the series, & it won't be long before I move on to The Numbered Account, set in the world of Swiss bank accounts & a Greek heiress who is engaged to Julia's cousin, Colin.


  1. This does sound fun! I love books that are so location specific.

  2. Hi Lyn,

    Thanks for the latest 'Julia' installment. I have a copy of Portuguese Escape now, thanks to Abe, and stumbled on The Numbered Accountant at an inner city Lions Club bookmart last weekend!

    I've nearly finished Lighthearted Quest. Desperately want to visit Morocco now. Am also eying off this picture on Etsy!:

    I have enjoyed LQ - mainly for the descriptions of place, the fine writing and Julia's personality, but I think there was a whisker too much plot/action/location change to be my absolute perfect book. Am being really fussy though, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Do you think Alexander McCall Smith might be acquainted with this series??? The lovable female sleuth, in not too nasty adventures... I know he has read Barbara Pym... Anyway I thought you might be curious about that idea as you are a McCall Smith fan too.

    thecaptivereader, I agree about books that have a real sense of place - some of my favourite novels are very location specific eg. The Towers of Trebizond, Brideshead Revisited.

    Anyway, I had better go and get the dinner cooked and not hijack this blog post!

  3. Merenia, what a gorgeous picture! It definitely reflects the heat & colour of Morocco although I admit I'd rather read about it than visit because I don't like hot weather. There was certainly a lot of plot & movement in LQ & there's just as much in PE but I enjoyed it, I just didn't try to keep up with every plot twist, I was reading too quickly anyway! I wouldn't be surprised if AMS knew these books. I think Julia's probably a bit more dynamic & edgy tham Mma Ramotswe but the evocation of a place & time is probably similar.
    Captive Reader, I hope you have a chance to read some Ann Bridge, I'm enjoying the series so much.

  4. I am almost through with all of Ann Bridge's work. I LOVE the books; the characters, politics, customs and geography of the regions she writes about are delightful. NOW. Who can I read who writes similarly? I hate it when I 'run out' of a favorite author's works. I hope someone can point me to more such wonderfully readable books. (The Julia books are not my favorite Ann Bridge novels. I enjoyed them, but not nearly as much as the slightly more serious ones. Singing Waters is my favorite.)

    1. I'm looking forward to reading some of AB's other books. I've only read Peking Picnic & Illyrian Spring apart from the Julia series. I haven't even heard of Singing Waters. Bloomsbury have several of the stand alone books as ebooks so I will get to them one of these days. Have you read Mary Stewart? She has the intrigue & exotic locations but not the political aspects of the Julia novels.