The novel opens with a man in crisis. The curiously named Martagon Foley lies in a Provençal garden in shock. He should be at the gala opening of the new airport he has been instrumental in creating, as its star engineer. Instead, he reflects on the loss of his love, his honour and his reputation.
After this dramatic beginning, the story moves back and forth through his life. His character is divided into two warring factions – the desire, instilled in him by his mother, to be a "good person", and the equally strong need for adventure and risk. Whether it is possible to be a good person – with old-world virtues of courage, endurance, honesty and generosity – in the business world today is a question that runs through the book. Martagon's efforts at goodness are thwarted at every turn, but is it due to the world he moves in, or some innate fault?
There is his collusion with a hostile takeover of the old-fashioned engineering firm for which he works. He intends to be honest with the founder, Sir Arthur Cox, his mentor, but Cox feels betrayed by the man he trusted. Giles Harper, for whom people like Cox are "dogmeat", takes the firm over. Martagon leaves, disgusted by Giles's management style, to become a freelance specialising in glass technology, but is drawn back when Giles asks him to work on a revolutionary new airport in the south of France.
More trouble for Martagon here, when he falls for the aristocratic, beautiful and neurotic Marina, on whose land the airport is built. Their relationship is fuelled by bottles of Gigondas, and by Marina's aura of danger. Martagon loses an inner core of integrity, but in the end his attempt to regain the moral high ground brings his life crashing down.
Victoria Glendinning plays with ideas on the state of Europe and of England. There is an episode with a comfortably civilised couple in Dorset when the expat Martagon innocently confesses to loving England. He is subjected to a stream of hatred of everything to do with England and realises the English have become "an insular people riddled with self-dislike."
At times Martagon is a mouthpiece for ideas, and there is a certain elusive quality to him, though the lesser characters of Harper and the odious politicking Tom Scree spring off the page. But this is a novel in which ideas are paramount – and also a warning of the damage done to people's individuality by globalisation, of which new airports in France are a part. How French can France remain, once it has been swamped with planeloads of English fleeing from their self-dislike?Reuse content