Parallel-plot historical novels have been a fixture of the literary landscape for some decades now, although they are rooted in a tradition of "framed" historical fiction contemporary with Sir Walter Scott (e.g., Ann Radcliffe's Gaston de Blondeville ). These novels, which frequently overlap with what Suzanne Keen calls the "romance of the archives," feature characters who discover that their own lives are playing out patterns first established by other characters, who lived and died long ago. As the parallel plots develop, the "modern" characters usually work through and transcend the difficulties faced by their predecessors. In a way, this plot structure is a revenant, the historical novel's Gothic antecedents (with their emphasis on repetition across generations) themselves returning from the fictional dead. Often, modernity plays out as comedy and the past as tragedy, with the difference summed up by an appropriately romantic and symbolic conclusion. A. S. Byatt's Possession (1990) is probably the most commercially successful of these novels, although it was preceded and followed by countless other examples, like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust (1975) and Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy (1996).
The "comic" endings in these novels themselves owe fealty to yet another well-known plot, the marriage plot, which has a long-established place in historical fiction as a symbol of cultural, national, or international reconciliation; Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe probably supplies the most famous example. (Joseph Allen Boone's Tradition Counter Tradition  is still one of the best studies of this narrative form.) In the nineteenth century, though, this use of the marriage plot frequently collapsed when faced with any sort of difference beyond either geographical distance or cultural surfaces. Thus, Maria Edgeworth's anti-anti-Semitic novel, Harrington (1817), reveals that the "Jewish" daughter is actually Christian before marrying her off to the protagonist, and there's a small nineteenth-century cottage industry devoted to the evils of interfaith marriage. Similarly, Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! (1855) famously reveals that the beautiful Ayacanora is not Indian but half-English, half-Spanish: "The thought that she was an Englishwoman; that she, the wild Indian, was really one of the great white people whom she had learned to worship, carried in it some regenerating change..." (210-11). (In the Victorian period, W. M. Thackeray offers perhaps the most sardonic assessments of this particular use of the marriage plot.)
This is all by way of preface to suggesting that, as it happens, the parallel-plot historical novel is becoming a little too familiar. Some novelists have started to question the underlying logic of this subgenre, like Briege Duffaud in A Wreath Upon the Dead (1993) and Barry Unsworth in Losing Nelson (1999). Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love (1999) appears, at first glance, to join with Duffaud and Unsworth. The characters occasionally evince a metafictional awareness that they're in some sort of plot: "There are too many coincidences in this thing already. She finds this trunk, you meet her and it turns out you're cousins. That's enough, surely?" "What? Bad art? Is that what you're saying?" (361) And the novel deliberately resolves nothing. The tragedy of Anna's marriage to Sharif at the beginning of the twentieth century, cut short by political assassination, is not "healed" by the relationship between Isabel and Omar at century's end--not least because we finish the novel without knowing if Omar is alive or dead (there's a strong hint that it may be the latter). Soueif leaves other plots hanging as well, like the mystery of the third tapestry panel and the burgeoning affair (or not) between the narrator, Omar's sister Amal, and an old friend. The point is clear enough: no political closure, no romantic closure, no any sort of closure.
What frustrated me, though, was that the open-ended conclusion was itself completely predictable. That is, the conclusion inverts the familiar "comic" outcome, but does so without thinking about the presuppositions driving the parallel-plot structure more generally. In The Map of Love, love repeats itself across generations, and so too does imperial history (with American Isabel replacing English Anna). Without a radical change in historical conditions, there can be no successful romance across nations and cultures. I didn't think The Map of Love was a bad novel, quite the contrary, but I've read enough novels in this subgenre to wish that it had been a better or more daring one.