Published in 1944, now reissued in a new translation, this influential first novel by prize-winning Spanish author Laforet (1921–2004) describes one hellish year in the life of a young woman.
In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, orphaned 18-year-old Andrea travels from the provinces to Barcelona to attend university. Her childhood memories of her grandparents’ apartment are good, so it comes as a bitter surprise when she finds herself plunged into bedlam. Her widowed grandmother is sweet but feeble. Her uncles Juan and Román are at each other’s throats. Their sister Angustias is a relentless scold. Juan’s young wife Gloria is foolish and vain. The war is mentioned only obliquely, though it had a direct effect on Román, who was imprisoned and tortured; now he’s engaged in unspecified smuggling, when he’s not making trouble and playing his violin. At least Román has talent—unlike Juan, who turns out bad paintings when he’s not beating Gloria. Andrea finds some relief on campus, where she becomes friendly with self-assured, manipulative Ena, and the apartment becomes marginally less claustrophobic when Aunt Angustias leaves to enter a convent. Still, privacy is nonexistent, food is scarce, and there’s a disquieting new wrinkle when Ena starts visiting Román. This is a Cinderella story without a Prince Charming; Andrea is invited to a party by Pons, a wealthy fellow student, but her acute self-consciousness prevents her from having a good time. Laforet’s portrait of female vulnerability is vivid in its immediacy, but the text is repetitive and poorly structured. Ena’s story, a compelling soap opera, threatens to eclipse the main narrative, and it seems like an easy out to close with Andrea leaving for Madrid to live with Ena. It’s also a problem in a coming-of-age story to close with the narrator concluding that she is “taking nothing” from her nightmarish year. Any epiphany for Andrea, apparently, will come long after the novel ends.
Poignant but not outstanding.