Study Guide

Air and Fire

by Rupert Thomson

Air and Fire Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Of Rupert Thomson’s novels, Dreams of Leaving (1988) and Five Gates of Hell (1991), the latter best foreshadows the highly literary characters and style of Rupert Thomson’s Air and Fire. The structure of this novel, moreover, proceeds in the framework of a three-month period and through a balance of obsessions.

The focal protagonist of Air and Fire is Suzanne Valence, for it is through her that one is meant to judge the rationalism of her husband, Théophile, as a failure, and it is because of her that the characters Wilson Pharaoh and Félix Montoya round out the male obsessions in the novel.

Air and Fire reminds one of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), for Emma Bovary and Suzanne Valence have genteel if provincial French backgrounds, both are restless, both marry men of science (Emma a doctor, Suzanne an engineer) who are blind to their wives’ needs, and both women ignite the passions of aristocrats and follow their own passions to the threshold of death.

Beyond these, Suzanne Valence has the chance for the kind of travel that Emma Bovary does not. A protégé of Gustave Eiffel, Théophile Valence is sent by him to construct an iron church in Santa Sofía, an impromptu town in Baja, Mexico, on the Sea of Cortez. With the “two thousand, three hundred and forty-eight component parts” of this church stowed on the steamer S.S.Korrigan, Théo, having let Suzanne accompany him, sets out on this journey, which for him is a task of measurable difficulties and for Suzanne is a wondrous adventure. She even relishes the perilous detour of the ship around Cape Horn.

In its rawness and heat, the environment into which Suzanne disembarks fills her with interest in it, its people, and sex. By this time, however, Théo, fifteen years older than she and obsessed with erecting his church, cannot relieve her, and she is drawn to Wilson Pharaoh, an American drifter, and even to Félix Montoya, a Mexican aristocrat. Of these two, Wilson is an idealist and Montoya a tyrant. These traits govern their love for Suzanne. It is during April that she journeys to and begins to settle in Santa Sofía, adjusting to Calle Francesca in the French quarter of town, and Suzanne also conducts Wilson and Montoya to the center of the plot in this month, because they fall in love with her.

May, the second time frame of the novel, begins as Montoya invites the Valences to tea (meaning Suzanne, to whom he gives the invitation) and ends as Théo asks Wilson to look after his wife in the name of his “friendship” with her. The June section begins with Montoya’s love letter to Suzanne and ends with Wilson’s return from the desert into which Suzanne has fled and from which Théo has begged him to rescue her.

The news of Montoya’s death by mutilation and lynching, brought on by his tyrannical nature, and Wilson’s preparation to sail north to San Diego, which his idealistic nature anticipates, are important features of the July—or concluding—part of the novel. The use of Wilson and Montoya to help bracket, and at the end bolster, the time line of Air and Fire shows how critical they are to the plot, just as their desire for Suzanne is critical to revealing their true natures.

Although he is a prospector, Wilson cannot “imagine being rich.” “The idea of gold . . . the looking for it” defines him, not its possession. Suzanne is the human form of gold to him, continually to be moved toward rather than obtained. Suzanne fails to see how awful it is for him to translate Montoya’s love letter for her, so he drinks himself into a raving melancholy and vanishes into the desert. Nevertheless, he cannot shake his love for Suzanne. When she herself retreats into the desert, thinking that this will save Montoya from being killed, as she dreams he will be, Wilson follows her. He does not rescue her so much, in fact, as play out his sense of her, not only seeing her head on the ground in a nimbus (or saintly halo) of crystals he mistakes for gold but also burying what he thinks is her corpse in the lake at Mission San Ignacio.

Montoya, on the other hand, wants Suzanne so badly that he is willing to kill to get her. She is flattered by his attention and curious...

(The entire section is 1758 words.)