A woman in drag navigates the man’s world of tango music a century ago.
Leda, the heroine of De Robertis’ third novel (The Invisible Mountain, 2009; Perla, 2012), arrives in Buenos Aires from her native Italy in 1913 expecting to start a new life with her husband, a cousin she married by proxy in Naples. But she gets bad news practically from the moment she steps off the gangplank: Dante was killed at a protest rally, leaving her struggling to get by in an overcrowded conventillo where single women are expected to sew for a living and avoid the streets at night. But carrying her father’s violin and dressed in Dante’s clothes, she infiltrates the city’s rowdy tango clubs, typically attached to brothels. When a violinist is stabbed onstage, Leda sees an opening to enter this exclusively male world of musicians; taking her late husband’s name, she eventually plays a central role in a group that becomes a sensation over the next five years. Plotwise, the core story contains few surprises: the novel tracks Leda/Dante’s rise in this musical demimonde, with familiar star-is-born detail and somewhat purple reveries about the music’s uplift. But the character's gender switch (loosely inspired by the life of jazz pianist Billy Tipton, who passed as a man for decades) is a critical part of this novel, giving depth and a much-needed sense of surprise to the story. Relationships with various women, from prostitutes to the owner of the club where he performs, complicate Leda's shifting gender identity and thoughtfully raise questions of male power and the moral issues of Leda/Dante’s claiming and wielding it. The novel is a plea to embrace “the bright jagged thing you really are,” and in its hero’s more contemplative, interior moments, De Robertis captures the enormity of that struggle.
A conventional up-by-one’s-bootstraps tale redeemed by the complex musician at its center.