Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tango Tale Makes Me Happy to Move On

Lima Nights by Marie Arana is like the tango - exotic, passionate and dramatic. It's about two partners who, from the audience's view, move together with precision, polish and passion. Seen a little closer, through opera glasses perhaps, things are not quite as smooth. Suddenly, the dancers become people - flawed, angry and irreparably out of synch. The book ends with a disappointing finale - as a performance never should - yet it leaves an imprint, if only because of its warning.

The book begins in a Peruvian tango bar, where "gringo" Carlos Bluhm spots the lovely Maria. One of the club's dancers, she is outgoing and flirtatious, seemingly as interested in Carlos as he is in her. When she slips her number into his back pocket, she offers him an escape he can't refuse. Before he's really paused to consider the possible consequences of his action, Bluhm dials her number. He's so infatuated that he hardly cares about the differences between them - Maria is 15, a dark-skinned native, who is working two jobs to keep rice on her family's table, whereas Bluhm is a husband, father and member of Lima's high-class Germanic society. Despite warnings from his friends, he continues the affair, falling deeply and passionately for Maria. The relationship makes him feel young, needed and happy.

In a society where cheating husbands are par for the course, it's no surprise that his wife, Sophie, soon becomes suspicious. When her fears are confirmed, she leaves Bluhm to deal with the consequences of the mess into which he's gotten himself. Twenty years later, he's contemplating just how messy things between himself and Maria have become. Can he save his marriage? Does he even want to? It will take a little black magic, a little modern-day psychiatry, and a brush with death to decide the fate of the mismatched lovers. It's a sizzling, obsessive tango between two flawed dancers, that comes to a shocking conclusion on the grimy streets of Lima.

Although Lima Nights is essentially about a lecherous middle-aged man, his teenage lover, the sex they have in stolen moments, and the people they destroy in the process, I somehow managed not to hate the book. It's graphic in both sex and language, neither of which tend to endear me to a book. Still, Arana's writing becomes the deciding factor - her themes are lurid, but she writes in a way that is both sensitive and unsentimental. Her characters get what they deserve, but she is able to make us feel sorry for them. Although I disliked Bluhm almost immediately, I found both he and Maria to be sympathetic and real. In spite of myself, I wanted the lovers to get a happy ending. Unfortunately, this book offers another example of how a disappointing ending can really mar a story. After I scowled at the novel's "resolution," I set the depressing story aside, and very happily moved on. I never liked the tango that much anyway.

Grade: C

(Book Image from Barnes & Noble)

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