Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Book Review: A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Duenas

Scribe Publishing, 2017 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

Scribe Publishing, 2017
I was in the mood for a big, historical novel when I chose A Vineyard in Andalusia off my teetering TBR pile just before the new year. Clocking in at a little over 500 pages, this novel promised adventure and romance, and to top it all off, it had a recommendation from Kate Morton on the cover. Expectations were high. And for once, I was delighted in having those expectations surpassed. A Vineyard in Andalusia is so much more than a light-hearted historical romp-- it has a bit of everything, and in following the travels of Mauro Larrea, I constantly found my thoughts shifting to reading one of my favourite classics, The Three Musketeers.

The book is set around 1860 and follows Don Mauro Larrea, a mining mogul from Mexico who has just learned that the big financial risk he took, commissioning mining machinery from an American despite the threat posed by the civil war, has left him totally bankrupt. He has no choice but to sell everything that he owns and try to find some way to rebuild his family estate. But, he is rich and powerful in his home town, and had the fates of his two children to think of, so he and his estate manager, Andrade, try to save face. Larrea takes out a loan from a notorious money lender, and promises to pay one third of it back in four months, or else risk losing his family home entirely to the money lender and his family.  Then, he tells everyone that he is off to seek investment opportunities in Cuba. What he finds in Cuba will set in motion a string of events that will take him half way around the world, and help him find a love he was not even aware he was looking for.

On the surface, this had the potential to be quite a dry book, a lot of it being about money and property transations.  But Larrea is a bit of a rogue, he takes risks, he broods, and he doesn't always play by the rules.  He is both a fiercely loyal friend and father, and a formidable opponent.  Following his exploits through the 500 or so pages, we see Larrea seducing the daughters of government officials, besting his rivals at all night billiards games, kidnapping, climbing tall buildings to rescue a damsel (and her husband) in distress, freeing slaves, and so much more.  Taken into its parts like that, it sounds a little bizarre, but it is the skill of Duenas' world building, and of course of the translation, as this book was originally written in Spanish, that make it a romp of a read.  Duenas' settings of Mexico, Cuba and Spain are richly peopled and feel right both for the time and place that they are supposed to be. Her characters are interesting and larger than life-- I think this book would make an excellent Netflix mini-series just for the sake of seeing who they would cast to play Carola Gorostiva, the slightly unhinged femme fatale. 

The trick to this book, perhaps, was not overdoing it with flowery descriptions, and leaving the lushness of language to the dialogue-- giving the speech of certain characters a more appropriate feel for the mid 19th Century setting, while also lending a hint of foreignness to this English edition.  The romantic element of the story too was understated, and felt natural.  While there were occasional descriptions of heaving bosoms, it was right for the story, and the swashbuckling tone that had already been set.

I expected to find this book so so, but instead, raced through it and found myself eager to return to its pages each time I had to take a break. 

I gave A Vineyard in Andalusia 4.5 Stars.

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