by Javier Marías
Published by Knopf
Genre: literature, mystery
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview.
3.5 / 5
Do you people watch? I love to, which perhaps speaks to some sort of voyeuristic trait. But I do. I like to watch people and imagine what their lives are like.
So does María Dolz, who frequents the same cafe for breakfast every morning. She becomes enthralled with a couple she sees there regularly, nicknaming them The Perfect Couple. When the husband is brutally murdered, María feels for his widow, and even a bit for herself. She will miss seeing The Perfect Couple.
One day when the widow appears at the cafe, María approaches her to offer her condolences. She is invited to the widow’s home and there meets two men, including the attractive Javier. When she bumps into him later, they begin to see each other. María falls in love, even as she suspects that Javier loves the widow Luisa. She becomes convinced that he is waiting for Luisa’s grief to pass and views María as nothing more than a dalliance. She contents herself with this, though, happy to have what time she can with him.
When María happens to overhear a conversation relating to Luisa’s husband’s death, she begins to wonder if it was as accidental as it appeared.
There is a bit of a mystery here – who killed Luisa’s husband and why – but the greater story is that of María. She debases herself in a way by allowing herself to have sex with Javier even though she believes he is in love with Luisa. She behaves with him the way she believes he behaves with Luisa: quietly adoring, devoted, and hopefully indispensable.
María works for a publisher, and as a woman immersed in books, she crafts a lot of dialogue in her head. Pages of this book are devoted to discussions María imagines people having, just as she imagines Javier’s love for Luisa. When she overhears the conversation that appears to imply that Luisa’s husband was murdered on purpose, is her interpretation correct, or is this something else she imagines? Javier directs her to a Balzac book that he wants her to read, and that begins to color María’s perceptions as well. She seems like someone who categorically cannot think for herself. She’s too busy thinking like a character in a book.
But what if all of those things she imagines are true? How then would we adjust our opinion of her?
This book unfolds really, REALLY slowly. There are the imagined conversations and imagined confrontations. María lives in her head quite a bit, and since she’s the one telling us this story, she forces us to live there too. There were times I wanted to shout, “Hurry up, already!”
The other issue is that María is not all that likable. She thinks so little of herself that she continues her sexual relationship with Javier even though she thinks he loves another and even though he contacts her only when it suits him. She allows him to direct their relationship completely. When she later contemplates marriage, she again diminishes herself, noting that she is in her thirties and opportunities might be running out. María’s life is all about settling, whether for what she thinks she deserves or for what she imagines to be best for herself.
You need a lot of patience to read this book, and for the most part, it’s worth it. The ending goes out with a íquiet whimper rather than something more vociferous, which, while frustrating, suits Mara and stays true to who she is.
The question becomes whether María grows in the book. Does she? Or does she stay stagnant? If she doesn’t, why not? Why does it seem that the events we read about leave her utterly unchanged? It is that fine point that makes me rate this book as average. I can accept the slow pacing and the ambivalent ending. But María needs to change. She needs to be more dynamic.