“You wore blue. The Germans wore gray.” So quoth Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca, the tutelary spirit behind bestselling Spanish debut novelist Dueñas’ high-minded historical soap.
Rick Blaine was a soldier of fortune and a failed romantic. Sira Quiroga is a seamstress of fortune, a young woman who has just barely come of age when Franco and his fascist pals start mucking about in the roiled politics of 1930s Spain. Those who remember their history will recall that the generalissimo began his revolt across the waters in Morocco, then under Spanish rule, a place to which Sira has been swept by a dashing but ultimately dastardly lover, who maroons her in the land of the Moors without a centavo. But Sira is a woman of resources, and from the shadowy depths of the Casbah she works herself up into high society, like Larissa Antipova’s mom in Doctor Zhivago. Couturier and designer to the jet set—or perhaps better the Stuka set, given the era—Sira is well placed to hear the secrets of the fascists and their Nazi pals, learning along the way what she has always known—that no one is to be trusted, especially if they look and act like that man in the Dos Equis beer commercial. All is Horatio Alger with a lace mantilla until Sira starts getting wrapped up in the gossipy politics of the day, delivered with rhetorical flourishes worthy of Bizet: “They say Franco’s delighted with him because he’s endlessly recruiting warlike Moorish boys to him, to send to the front...He didn’t spend his whole life playing cards like the laid-back Colonel Sáenz de Buruaga, who on the day of the uprising even gave the first orders from the casino terrace.” Very well, then: Such a worthy adversary requires worthy derring-do, and Sira, now hooked up with British intelligence—for by now we’ve gone from gothic romance to espionage thriller—is just the person for the gig. Will Beigbeder, Franco and Uncle Adolf prevail, or will the good triumph? Well, you’ll just have to read Dueñas’ well-crafted but decidedly chick-lit effort to find out.
Middlebrow and breezy. A perfect beach read, if a touch off-season, unless you’re headed for Casablanca and its waters.