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In my review of Hoffman's 2005 The Ice Queen, I petulantly concluded that I didn't want to read any more novels by the author. Nevertheless, since it was only 7 CDs long, I decided to listen to her latest book. I'm glad I did. The Third Angel is a clever novel, in three parts, set in London in 1999, 1966, and 1952. Each part stands on its own, but the three parts link together nicely, featuring some of the same characters at different parts in their lives. The portion from 1966 illuminates what happens in 1999, and the portion from 1952 illuminates both the others. If Hoffman had put the three sections in chronological order, it might have been too neat, but putting the three parts in reverse chronology means the novel is more challenging, and I found it more illuminating on a second listen.
The first and third stories are about Americans visiting London for a family wedding. The first is about two sisters: one, a New York lawyer, stays in a Kensington hotel when her writer sister gets engaged, but she ends up being attracted to the boyfriend. It seems that he is not devoted to her sister, because he reciprocates. But then life takes a tragic turn, and the sisters have to cope with it.
The second story is about a young English woman who is working as a maid in the Kensington hotel, who meets a pop star and writes a song for him, which she calls "The Third Angel," partly based on what her father had told her years ago. She reflects on her childhood, growing up in the countryside, driving around with her doctor father visiting his patients. He had expected her to follow in his footsteps. Now that her parents are divorced, she thinks about what she should do with her life. The pop star's life takes a tragic turn, and this gives her more to think about.
The third story has a young girl for its central figure, traveling with her father and unpleasant stepmother for the wedding of the stepmother's sister. Yet the bride-to-be doesn't want to get married, and is in love with another man. Things take a tragic turn, throwing the girl into emotional shock, and she and her father go on a journey to help her recover.
All three parts include the same ghost story, and each has central figures who have lost control of their lives and through crisis become deeper and more grounded. The book has similar weaknesses to others by Hoffman; the symbolism of the third angel is a little heavy, and the plot is contrived. Furthermore, in this novel, the characterization of England, especially in the 1960s, lacks subtlety. The reading of the unabridged audiobook is by Nancy Travis, whose English accent is unconvincing, but it is nevertheless consistent and energetic. Despite these reservations, however, The Third Angel is an interesting work, and the format of the story makes it an impressive achievement.
Link: Author website
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.