A tour de force of a debut novel, recounting the life of the last great poet of Spain’s Golden Age and, “arguably, the most mythologized mortal in human history.”
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648–95), the Mexican poet, was uniquely brilliant, as one-of-a-kind as Albert Einstein. Anderson dares to inhabit her mind and that of another woman separated by centuries, weaving their lives and creations and those of their confidants and lovers into a carefully constructed lattice. One story belongs to Beulah Limosneros, a gifted young woman who falls under the tutelage—but not the spell—of a cynical professor who switched from philosophy to literature in order to meet women and has never regretted the choice until now. “Smart, pretty, psycho” Beulah is torn by gradually revealed wounds, but she rises to tough occasions more willingly than Don Don, as she tauntingly calls her professor. When things turn ugly, he is by her side, but not for selfless reasons, and her sufferings and his subsequent trials are both hellish and perfectly believable. Enfolding their tale is that of Sor Juana, whose sad life Beulah has been exploring (and unconsciously emulating): A reader since the age of three, her ample mind nourished by a freethinking grandfather, she is learned, beautiful and rebellious, profoundly aware of the violent and tragic world she inhabits; as a bedazzled and himself dazzling suitor writes, “We are driven from Eden for the blood on our hands, yet prolong our exile only to plunge them in ink.” Books and words are powerful, as everyone in this bookish and strikingly written novel comes to discover, and they exact a cost. Anderson’s is a tale of hidden messages, of secrets kept from inquisitors, of manifold mysteries, and he does an admirable job of keeping them all sorted out without dropping a single thread.
A Da Vinci Code for the literate, reminiscent of Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Carlos Fuentes at their best; sure to draw attention to Sor Juana, who remains one of the most fascinating figures in world literature.