The Nobel laureate weaves together the tragicomic misfortunes of two families and several friends in this tale of crime, passion and avarice.
Vargas Llosa (The Dream of the Celt, 2012, etc.) turns from the broad historical and political concerns of his previous novel to look at how blood ties unravel when money and deceit come into play. In Lima, Peru, the wealthy, aged widower Ismael surprises everyone—not least his two wayward sons—by suddenly marrying his much younger housekeeper.When the newlyweds fly off on a long honeymoon, the sons’ anger at losing their inheritance is directed at Rigoberto, Ismael’s longtime employee and friend and one of the witnesses to the couple’s furtive ceremony. The ensuing personal threats and legal wrangling add to Rigoberto’s troubled preoccupation with his teenage son’s reports that a dapper, possibly demonic man has been appearing out of nowhere and talking to him. In the nearby city of Piura, Felícito’s peace of mind unravels when he receives an extortionate note that threatens his transport business and mistress. One of his two sons is a good fellow, the other anything but, and Felícito has never been sure he’s the father of the scapegrace. As the plots move toward various resolutions, the reunion of two sisters fits right in with all the other pairings. The themes of paternity and filial respect get a good workout, with permutations touching on the self-made man, inherited wealth, marital tolerance and sex after 70. Felícito’s is the stronger story, as he is the book’s richest character, and Vargas Llosa spends much time walking him around a city the author once lived in, giving readers a true feel for the streets, sounds and ceaseless heat.
This master storyteller ensures that the book is continually intriguing and charming. Yet taken together, the two narratives don’t make a strong whole, rather more a theme and variation that can seem sometimes dangerously close to what Rigoberto at one point calls his side of the story: a soap opera.