[WARNING: SPOILERS] After getting some favorable comments on book blogs, The Bad Girl seemed like just the book to get me back into Fiction while I endured the never-ending assignments in school. Written by former Peruvian presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa, about whom I have always had strong, but mixed feelings, The Bad Girl (Travesuras de la niña mala) is a quick and interesting read, but I wouldn’t describe it as enthralling as some American critics do. ( A round-up of reviews may be found here. )
The basic plot of the book is that a man, The Good Boy, and a woman, The Bad Girl, meet when children and then do so again throughout the rest of their lives, as each pursues their dreams (his, to live in Paris for the rest of his live, hers, to live in luxury with pride) until one of them passes away. The Good Boy tends to treat The Bad Girl with compassion, understanding, and deference, while The Bad Girl tends to treat The Good Boy like an object whose humanity factors into her own decision-making not at all.
And yet, this is a love story. One might not think so for about 200 pages, but in the end, you will know.
Some will be misled by the themes. The Bad Girl is, for all her faults, a very strong character. As the New York Times review by Kathryn Harrison explains, Llosa has always been obsessed with Madame Bovary, so if you liked that work, then I think you should appreciate this one. Like Madame Bovary, and to some extent The Awakening, The Bad Girl features a woman fettered by society who bursts forth, challenging conventions and redefining the nature of relationships with other people in society. The Bad Girl, who assumes many names in the time that we know her, is labeled an egotist many times and scorches many more people than just The Good Boy, who is the narrator.
Many reviews criticize the author for the narrator’s lack of character, or his unreality. I am not so sure this is a fair criticism. I think this is a case of the seen and unseen in criticism. Who wants to talk about a good boy? (I guess I don’t since I won’t for the rest of this post LOL.) Perhaps it’s just easier for the woman to draw the attention, especially when the man seems so harmless. Take this, for example, the conclusion from the NYT review:
The heroism of [Madame Bovary and The Bad Girl] is that they refuse to be diminished by modest, reasonable hopes or by respectable society. Creatures of appetite — for sex, money, excitement, life — bad girls serve their hunger first, and last. They are terrible and they are enviable, because they won’t settle for less than everything they want. Because, in the end, they accept not only their essential nature, but also the consequences of their choice to fulfill rather than deny it.
I think this is a rather overstated analysis of The Bad Girl’s character, and altogether too simple. Given the prose, you too may be tempted to succumb to the notion that these are static characters. One’s preferences need not change through time in order for a character to be dynamic because the seeds of one’s growth may be sown at a very early age and these seeds can transform aims, objectives, memories, and feelings. We see very interesting things happen to The Bad Girl, and I have to wonder if Slate’s Michael Wood even read the book, given his intemperate, ill-considered review:
Neither our language nor Ricardo’s can name her or define her. She can’t be admired, she can’t be pitied, and she can’t, except in Ricardo’s desperate parody of an old movie, The Blue Angel perhaps, be the heroine of a grand fatal romance.
Do not believe this for a second. You may at times hate this woman, and you may be repulsed at others. My hunch is that if you give it some thought, you will find a woman who can certainly be admired. She refuses to be conquered by anything, and one can imagine how isolated she must be, as if the only things that existed in the world for a time were her and death. We pity her for where she came from, and her hypersensitivity for which she developed protections in order to soften the pain of slights.
Romance and love stories are more than candles, valentines, and sex. This may sound odd to you, but the book this resembles the most in its core, seems to me The Giving Tree. Just as The Bad Girl is a re-telling of Madame Bovary, it is a re-telling of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, with the genders reversed, though the genders aren’t really important for the essence of The Giving Tree. In any case, I think I like this telling better. It’s not as powerful, but it’s much more human.
Why, after all, did she always deign to meet him? Why, after all, did she always seem like she wanted to hear cheap, sentimental things? What pride the woman had! One of my favorite books, Herbert Mueller‘s The Uses of the Past, has an interesting passage on pride:
Here again St. Sophia gives the clue to a basic ambiguity. Pride goeth before a fall– but first it lifts men to real heights. Without pride the tragic hero would not be a hero; without it there would be no tragedy in history because no civilization at all. And without it there would be no higher religions. It was pride that built St. Sophia. It was still pride that led thousands to pray in St. Sophia in the miserable last days of Byzantium.
For so long, we were shown that she could never be conquered so as to be a loving wife. We were shown her disdain for all things boring or poor. But like the toothbrush that The Good Boy stashed from his limited time with her, that he would keep as a memento of his love, we found out that she had stashed away something too: their marriage. Just so, and as with the prayers offered in the last days of Byzantium, in The Bad Girl’s last days, she shows her ultimate pride and in so doing transcends her own limits, proving she is no static character and certainly no woman merely accepting some hedonistic “essential nature.”
She calls herself “wife.”