I actually read another book in between my last post and this one. Unfortunately, it’s not something I would ever presume to review. I tackled Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time because it was what my book group had chosen to read…and even though I finished it (unlike some other members of my group), I really have almost no idea what I could possibly say about it. I don’t think I’m necessarily stupid, but I’m sure not smart enough to wrap my mind around string theory or, well, pretty much anything else in the book.
Fortunately my next reading choice immersed me in a world I found much more comprehensible. While I read it in its original Spanish, Misión Olivido, by Spanish novelist María Dueñas (Simon & Schuster, 2012), is available in English translation as The Heart Has Its Reasons. The title change is, in my estimation, an unfortunate American marketing decision, since it makes the novel seem like something less than it is. Yes, there are several love stories, but they are woven through an academic setting, a cross-cultural premise, and a historical trajectory that I found transcended the trite implications of the English title.
Dueñas reached international publishing stature with her first novel, El tiempo entre costuras (The Time In Between), a book I enjoyed immensely. (It turns out there is also a Spanish television series based on it…do I sense another obsession to replace “Isabel” here…?) Both novels touch on the Spain of the 1930’s and 40’s, but the characters and plot lines are very different.
Misión Olvido weaves several narratives into one, along the way showing how interconnected we all are in our human yearnings and disappointments. The protagonist is Blanca Perrea, a professor in Madrid whose marriage has just fallen apart. Looking for a complete change, she comes to California in 1999 to organize the papers of compatriot professor Andrés Fontana, who was exiled to the United States after the Spanish Civil War and died thirty years ago in a tragic accident. At Santa Cecilia University she also meets Daniel Carter, an American Spanish professor with a mysterious connection to the university.
All of the characters are believable and compelling. What I found I liked most were the cultural observations and academic interactions. The Modern Languages department politics are handled subtly and, in my experience, quite realistically. Seeing the United States through the eyes of a Spaniard was fascinating, and Dueñas does an excellent job of capturing and contrasting the Spain of before, during, and after Franco. The character of Daniel Carter, in particular, had me remembering my own first exposure to Spain, in the early years of the post-Franco “Movida”. I often wonder what I would have done with my life with just a bit more confidence and courage during that year I spent in Madrid, and Carter’s trajectory as an American who becomes a world-renowned hispanist had me imagining an alternate reality for myself.
This novel explores the myriad ways in which we invent and re-invent ourselves. Don’t let the English title put you off the book. This is a finely crafted story, with smart and subtle dialog. For the several days I was completely subsumed in Misión Olvido, I visited college campuses and offices in California and Madrid, centuries old Franciscan missions, the back streets, foods, and homes of Madrid, and the Mediterranean coast. When Spaniards corrected Daniel Carter’s grammar, I winced to remember my own painful (and/or embarrassing) errors. One of my favorite authors, Ann Tyler, has said “I read so I can live more than one life in more than one place.” This novel let me live several lives, in several places.