A century’s worth of Mexican culture and politics is observed through the prism of the life of the eponymous protagonist of this big novel, the most lucid and satisfying fiction of Fuentes’s 40-year career (The Crystal Frontier, 1997, etc.).
“The years with Laura Díaz” (which begin in 1905) are “remembered” (as a framing prologue and epilogue reveal) by a young artist who imagines the life of the famous beauty he sees depicted in a mural, then by the descendant who vows he’ll tell her story. Early chapters concentrate on the (often romantic) history of Laura’s aristocratic German-Mexican family, her fascination with an imposing statue of a suffering woman (a resonant omen) encountered in a forest, marriage to an older man devoted to the Mexican Revolution and particularly the sufferings of the working classes, and her flirtation (made possible by the Díaz’s social connections) with Mexico City’s artistic circle. The story picks up considerable steam when Laura becomes an intimate of painter Frida Kahlo and her artist husband Diego Rivera (brought splendidly to life), stalls a bit during her long affair with Spanish diplomat and left-wing activist Jorge Maura (a true believer who’s a bit of a dull dog, for all his emoting and posturing), and recovers nicely when Fuentes focuses on Laura’s combative-loving relationships with her always-preoccupied husband (to whom she nevertheless always returns) and their contrasting sons: frail, sensitive Santiago (the namesake and image of Laura’s beloved half-brother, an early martyr to the Revolution) and extroverted (ironically named) Danton, whose rampant careerism blandly sidesteps all his family’s conflicting ideals. Even better are the final 200 pages, in which Laura becomes involved with American refugees from McCarthyite persecution (including the guilt-ridden film producer who becomes her latest lover), then finds in her 60s the perfect outlet for her complex energies, as well as “independence and fame,” as a successful photojournalist.
A replete and readable portrayal of a fascinating character, and an all-around terrific novel.