A Peace Corps volunteer finds love, spiritual renewal, and unsettling parasites in this romance.
Fleeing heartbreak in Omaha, Nebraska, young college graduate Fiona Garvey signs up with the Peace Corps in 1988 and ships out to the African nation of Gabon to teach English. There, she’s overwhelmed by unfamiliar customs but she’s captivated by the scenery—especially the gorgeous countenance of Christophe, the wealthy son of the Gabonese minister of tourism. Noting his “Startling green eyes” and skin “the color of melted Hershey’s chocolate,” Fiona is smitten—but so, alas, are his other girlfriends: Diana, Keisha, Lisette, and Mireille. Fiona rages at Christophe’s womanizing ways, but he just smiles and chides her for being so out of step with Gabon’s polygamous sexual mores. Much of the story consists of their fraught bickering, with Fiona weakly fighting her desire for Christophe and, eventually, surrendering to it during a getaway at his seaside vacation villa. When they’re apart, she lives an aimless life, hanging out and gossiping with other Peace Corps volunteers, fending off the creepy advances of a student who breaks into her house, and watching in horror as tumbu-fly maggots erupt from pimples on her skin. Her ballet practice grounds her, though, although when she takes up African spirit dancing, she starts receiving strange visions. Author Rose (Outside the Limelight, 2016, etc.), an ex-Peace Corps volunteer and ballet dancer, keeps the novel focused on Fiona’s inner melodrama—particularly her hot-and-bothered responses to Christophe’s comings and goings. Her romantic obsession can feel a bit claustrophobic and also misjudged: Christophe is meant to be an Adonis who helps to connect her to earthy sensuality, but he often comes off as a callow man taking smug advantage of his privilege. When the author gets away from Fiona’s relationship turmoil, though, her vivid prose and rapt evocations of the African surroundings make the story come alive; for instance, she describes a Gabonese dancer as carrying herself “like a queen, moving with broad, sweeping, theatrical steps.”
An uninvolving love story that’s redeemed by a nicely observant fish-out-of-water picaresque.