What a brilliant book, a sharp and witty study, as mentioned by one of the reviews on the back cover. Judging from the fairly low reviews this book has received it is worth pointing out that the summary and the actual contents of this book can easily be seen as two different things. However if I had to describe "The Exiles Return" it would be as something similar to Anna Karenina in terms of the drama that ends up unfolding, quite unexpectedly and much to my pleasant surprise, throughout the book.
The topic of social conventions is rampant throughout, and likens the writing to many Russian classics which also strongly focused on these issues, especially Eugene Onegin which even figures in the text. What started off as a seemingly disconnected tale of several different characters ends up winding into a very neat and well-written knot by the end, explaining the confusion and mystery that is presented to the reader in the prologue, with the death of a young lady in an American mansion on the then-American part of Austria. The writing progressed smoothly from overarching to the smaller details, like standing in a gallery and looking at a painting from a distance, only to then come up closer and examine the details, falling in love with the work even more. That is the experience I had with this book, a truly wonderful one at that.
The characters are the very essence of the novel. To point out a lack of setting or details in terms of daily life at the time would be to misinterpret the point of the book, I find. The goal is to present the cobweb of entangled relationships and the complex nature it possesses, as is evident throughout the novel on numerous occasions. De Waal successfully drew attention to all the right details and captivated with her well-constructed and elegant characters, not failing to point out the little cracks and even the occasional rot that hides within the individual.
There isn't much more to add. It was a truly poignant book that was such a pleasure to delve into and read. I think it reads best for people familiar with the style of writing that de Waal was going for, as well as the slow manner of storytelling that focuses on the build up in character, on their intrigues and shortcomings. I daresay it even requires a more Euro-centric outlook, or an individual that is more open to the outlook that can be attached to it. For it was a wonderful piece of literature that I initially had some hesitations about, but was proven completely wrong by the mastery I found within its pages.