The narrator, an unsuccessful writer, is on his way to Berlin when he coincidentally meets a former fellow student at JFK airport. Jeff, too, remembers him immediately even though they haven’t seen each other for two decades. As their flight is delayed, they decide to spend the waiting time together and update each other about what they have done in the last twenty years. Jeff’s life was marked by an incident on the beach, when he saw a man drowning. He could save him but not forget the occurrence. He starts enquiring about him and soon finds out that Francis Arsenault is a successful art dealer. Jeff becomes more and more fixated on the man, wondering if he remembers that he was his saviour. When he gets to work at Francis’ gallery, this is the beginning of a major change in his life – yet, will he ever get the chance to reveal what brought him there in the first place?
Antoine Wilson has chosen an interesting framework for his story which puts the reader in the same place as the writer who mainly just sits there and listens to Jeff’s account. You know that what he tells is highly subjective, only one side of the story is presented in a way that Jeff wants to put it, but nevertheless, quasi as a former friend, you are willing to believe him not knowing where all this is going to lead to. “Mouth to Mouth” is highly intriguing from the first page, due to a very clever foreshadowing, you are aware that there must be something behind Jeff’s need to tell his life story, but you keep wondering what that could be.
“’Who better than someone who was there at the beginning?’ – ‘You said that before. Only I’m not sure why it matters.’ ‘You knew me then. That I had a good heart.’“
Repeatedly, Jeff stresses that he has a good heart, that he only wanted the best for others, that he did do nothing wrong and just like the narrator, you wonder why he keeps on stressing that point. Saving somebody from downing is surely an admirable act, selfish and courageous. That he started following Francis then and slowing crept into his life is not that honest but he didn’t do no harm. So you keep on reading eager to figure out what will ultimately make Jeff appear in a totally different light.
“Just think, if I had somehow not saved Francis’s life, if instead he’d died on that beach, everything that came after would not have happened like it did.”
The novel raises the big question about what might have happened if just one incident of your life hadn’t happened, or had turned out differently. Many things of our everyday life do not have life changing consequences, but some do. And everybody knows this pondering about the “what if”. Connected to this is inevitably the question of necessary consequences, of a bigger plan behind it all.
In Francis’s case, he was granted more time on earth due to Jeff’s intervention, but did he use that time wisely? He is a reckless art dealer and the closer Jeff gets and the more he learns about him, the more he wonders how that man deals with the big gift he was given. At the same time, he gets insight into the shiny art’s business which is all but shiny behind the facade and which is, well, just a business where money is made.
A brilliantly plotted novel which is thought-provoking and play well with the reader’s expectations and emotions.