Another ponderous and trendy novel from Murray (What It Takes to Get to Vegas, 1999, etc.), this one about a museum curator’s search for the identity of a 16th-century memoirist.
Sara Gonzales may seem like one of those West Coast girls who just can’t get her act together, but don’t be misled: She’s more of a misplaced Latina who can’t get her act together. A restorer of ancient manuscripts at the Getty Museum, Sara lives in a quaint neighborhood in Pasadena and has a boyfriend of sorts, a Marine Corps officer named Karl Sullivan—who has a fiancée named Claire O’Connell. Sara escapes from this unhappy situation by immersing herself in a 16th-century manuscript describing the life of an Aztec princess captured by Cortez and brought to Europe as a present for the pope. Helen (the name given to the princess at her baptism in Rome) amuses her captors by performing as a juggler in a kind of traveling Aztec circus and becomes the lover of Titian (for whom she serves as both model and muse). The manuscript is attributed to a Spanish monk, but Sara believes (against the opinion of virtually every scholar who has examined it) that it was written by Helen herself. As she sets out to unveil the author’s true identity, Sara must also contend with her ambivalent feelings toward the soon-to-be-wed Karl, as well as her own sense of dislocation as a Latina living in the US and working for an Anglo institution. Can we choose our own place in the world, or must we forever fall back on the dictates of fate? History doesn’t offer too many examples of a resilience as strong as Helen’s—but that’s why they are so intriguing.
A fluid and genuinely interesting story badly weighed down by leaden prose (“If I prove my hypothesis I will be as clever as any necromancer, for all the dark women of history have lost their tongues”) and a thoroughly hackneyed view of Latin American history.