This book made a lot of promising starts, but, frustratingly, jumped away from every scenario just as things were getting interesting! It wasn’t just starts: sometimes it jumped into a plotline in the middle, leaving you wishing you’d got the background in more detail. And I think the author must have read Jane Eyre just before reading it, because one of the storylines was distinctly Mrs Rochester-esque. It wasn’t a bad read, although the Mrs R.-ish “madness” storyline really had no place in a book written in the 21st century, but Maria Duenas could have made several really good novels out of the material, rather than a single bitty and, by the end, slightly bonkers, one.
Our hero, Mario, has emigrated from Spain – with a complicated background involving the Basque country, Mallorca and illegitimacy – to Mexico, and, arriving as a young man with nothing, made a fortune from silver mining. It would have been fascinating to have heard how he did this, but we don’t. We only meet him as a middle-aged man who’s borrowed a load of money to buy machinery from the United States, unluckily just as the Civil War/War Between The States was breaking out. The guy he’d been dealing with has been killed at Bull Run/Manassas, and the machinery’s been requisitioned by the US government, leaving our man in deep doo-doo.
Mexico, 1861, then. Surely the scene is set (if we ignore the title!) for a novel about the French and Austrian intervention. Bring on Archduke Maximilian! Er, no. We’re out of Mexico before the French have even invaded, never mind the Habsburgs getting stuck in. And we’re off to Cuba – the glamorous Paris of the Antilles, where it’s all happening. And where the slave trade is still legal: it wasn’t abolished there until 1867, and slavery wasn’t abolished there until 1886. Mario then gets embroiled (in a business sense only) with his son’s fiancée’s auntie. Again, there’s a back story, this time about how she “had” to marry someone unsuitable, but it’s never really gone into. There are some wonderful descriptions of life in Havana, about its relationship with Spain and how that’s viewed by different groups – Cuba was to rebel against Spanish rule in 1868 – and about the effects of slavery, and it really gets interesting when the dodgy auntie tries to con Mario into getting involved with the slave trade, and he refuses.
But, just as the reader’s really getting into it, we’re off again! Mario and the auntie’s husband play a high-stake game of billiards, and Mario wins the vineyard in Andalusia (well, the title was a bit of a giveaway there) which the auntie’s husband has recently inherited from a cousin. Goodbye Havana, next stop Jerez!
And so we now get on to the fascinating tale of the importance of sherry to the Spanish economy in the 19th century – making up around 20% of total exports, most of them to Britain. I was saying only recently, after a visit to Marsala and reading up on how the Marsala wine trade was developed by a Scouser and a Yorkshireman, a year after I went to Porto and read up on how the port wine trade was developed by a man from Ashton-underl-Lyne, that someone really needs to write a book about the effect on European history of British boozing! Seriously, it has had a huge impact on the history of Portugal, the history of Sicily and, to some extent, the history of Andalusia.
And, yet again, a fascinating back story that we don’t hear enough about. The auntie’s husband came from a rather complicated background involving various cousins and friends who all expected to marry each other but didn’t. One of them has ended up as the Mother Abbess as a convent. One of them has married an Englishman and is trying to con her dangerous stepson, who keeps kidnapping people – cue a dramatic rescue by our hero and his Indian (“Indian” is the acceptable term when talking about the indigenous peoples of Latin America) servant. The auntie’s husband thinks he killed one of his cousins by mistake, except that it turns out that it was someone else who killed him by mistake. Our hero agrees, in order to con the cousin’s stepson, to pose as the cousin who’s recently died and left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband, but it all goes a bit pear-shaped, and a doctor who was going to marry the one who ended up in the convent gets involved. Er, yes. I said it was rather complicated, didn’t I?!
Oh, and he can’t flog the vineyard until a full year’s passed since the death of the cousin who left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband. And the one who’s married to the Englishman has got the needle because she thought she’d inherit it. And the sister in the convent’s fallen out with them all because she wanted to marry the Englishman. Well, she wanted to marry the doctor as well. Presumably either or, not both. It would have made a great story if we’d followed them all from when they were children and these complicated relationships were being formed, but, as it is, it’s all rather confusing. Then the son’s fiancée’s auntie turns up, along with her slavewoman. The slavewoman gets involved with the Indian servant, and they eventually live happily ever after. And the son decides to dump the fiancée, which is irrelevant because neither of them are really involved in any of it – and it’s all complicated enough as it is, and really rather bonkers by this point.
It then transpires that the English husband is mad, and that he comes from a family of mad people. I really, really hate it when people put storylines like this in modern books. It’s quite understandable that someone like Charlotte Bronte should have written a storyline about someone being “mad. Gothic-type novels are full of “mad” people. And that whole idea about “the taint of hereditary madness” – it was a huge thing, and a huge tragedy because it meant that people with mental health issues were shoved away out of sight for fear that the family name be tainted. But for someone to write a storyline like this in the 21st century – no, no, no. I appreciate that attitudes vary between countries and cultures, but I wouldn’t really expect to be finding a storyline like this in any book written within the last thirty years or so. Can we please, please get past this? Can we not talk about people being “mad”? Can we please get past this idea about the taint of madness within families? Can we please stop stigmatising people like this?
I think that, in this case, what the husband actually had was early onset dementia. OK, that term would not have been used in the 1860s, but there are still far better ways of putting it than Maria Duenas did. But I said it was Mrs Rochester-esque, didn’t I? I don’t actually know how well-known Jane Eyre is in Spain, but I think it’s one of those books that’s well-known worldwide. The part set in Cuba was really good, and the background story about the complicated family past in Jerez could have been really good had it been gone into properly. But it all got very strange at the end. No Grace Poole, but the “mad” husband gets packed off to stay at the convent where his sister-in-law, the one who’d once hoped to marry him (when she wasn’t hoping to marry their doctor pal) was Mother Abbess … whereupon he sets the place on fire, and kills himself, conveniently leaving the way clear for his wife to marry our hero Mario. They then live happily ever after on the vineyard.
I’ve got a horrible feeling I’ve made this all sound rather silly. It wasn’t really. Some parts of it were very … well, promising rather than good, because they weren’t developed properly. If the book had been longer, and if the focus had been on either Mario or the vineyard family (both Andalusian and Cuban branches) and the background stories had been developed properly, it could have been very good. As it was, it was rather frustrating. By the end, it read like something that an over-enthusiastic teenager with an over-active imagination, desperate to pack in as much drama as possible, might have written. Promising … but the promises were never really fulfilled.