"What we become"- The bookbinder's daughter

Review: What We Become by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
I received an advanced review copy of this title from Atria books via NetGalley. The book was published in the original Spanish in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Nick Caistor and Lorena Garcia.

My Review:
What We BecomeMax Costa is a scoundrel and a thief but you wouldn’t know it from his refined manner and elegant clothes. We first meet him in 1928 on board the Cap Polonio, a transatlantic luxury liner bound for Buenos Aires. Max is a professional ballroom dancer on the ship and he entertains the unaccompanied young women with his tangos and fox trots. But his work as a ballroom dancer is just a cover for his real profession which his stealing from his rich dance partners. The narrative takes place between 1928 and 1966 and alternates between three distinct periods of time during which Max meets a woman whom he cannot forget.

On board the ship Max meets an intriguing Spanish couple; the husband is a world-famous composer, Armando de Troeye and his younger, gorgeous, and elegant wife Mecha Inzunza de Troeye. What draws Max to the couple at first is a very expensive pair of pearls that the wife wears which Max believes he can easily steal and make a large profit for little effort. Mecha is an excellent dancer and she is particularly skillful at the Tango, for which dance her husband has in mind to compose a new piece. Armando likes to watch while Mecha dances often with Max and this builds up the sexual tension between the dance partners.

Once they land in Buenos Aires Max, who lived in that city until he was fourteen, serves as their tour guides to all of the local dance pubs. Armando wants to know the origins of the Tango, which is not the same Tango that is performed among the European gentry. Their time in Buenos Aires is fraught with danger and tension as they go to some of the seediest places in the city. Max and Mecha also begin a passionate love affair, but their relationship, if one can call it that, is not at all what I expected. This is not a clandestine affair that is hidden from Mecha’s husband but, on the contrary, he encourages her to seduce Max and he even watches them while they make love.

Max gets his hands on Mecha’s pearls and disappears. When he next meets up with Mecha it is almost ten years later in Nice, where he has lived comfortably as a gentleman off of his ill-gotten earnings. This is one of the most exciting parts of the book because Max is asked by spies for both the Italian and Spanish governments to steal some sensitive documents from the home of a rich, society woman. Max fits in perfectly with the European gentry so he has the perfect cover to case the house and come up with a plan that involves breaking into a house and safe cracking.

During his stint as a secret agent he, once again, runs into Mecha who is living in Nice alone because her husband has been arrested among the chaos of the Spanish Civil War. The theft of the pearl necklace is all but forgotten as Mecha and Max rekindle their sexual relationship. They are drawn to each other and their physical relationship is intense, passionate and sometimes even boarders on the violent.

After Max completes his mission he must flee Nice for fear of being arrested and his farewell to Mecha this time is emotionally difficult for both of them. It is evident that the have deep feelings for each other and saying goodbye is difficult not something that they want to do. When Max meets Mecha, almost thirty years later in Sorrento, he can’t stay away from her this time either. Max is now sixty-four years old and has retired from his dangerous career as a thief. He lives a quiet life as a chauffeur for a Swiss doctor. Mecha is in town because her son, Jorge Keller, is competing in a national chess competition and Max decides to check into her hotel so he can reminisce about his younger, more exciting days.

The last part of the book also has a bit of a mystery which involves Jorge’s Russian chess opponent. There is cheating and spying going on and Mecha asks Max to help her son plot against the Russians. Max is very reluctant to get involved in international affairs, even if it is just chess, because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his now stable and quiet life. But Mecha has a secret weapon that convinces Max to come out of retirement and use his thieving skills against the Russians.

This book is full of mystery and suspense with multiple plot lines woven throughout. My problem with the book is that some scenes were so suspenseful and interesting and then others were boring and superfluous to the plot. A few scenes could have been edited to make the plot even stronger. Also, the relationship of Max and Mecha isn’t fully developed until about two-thirds of the way into the story. At first their relationship is purely physical and I would have been more interested to see the emotional side of these two characters laid out much earlier on in the plot.

Overall this was an interesting read full of mystery, passion, tango and chess. If you enjoy a good historical fiction set in the 20th century then I recommend giving this book a chance.

About the Author:
A ReverteSpanish novelist and ex-journalist. He worked as a war reporter for twenty-one years (1973 – 1994). He started his journalistic career writing for the now-defunct newspaper Pueblo. Then, he jumped to news reporter for TVE, Spanish national channel. As a war journalist he traveled to several countries, covering many conflicts. He put this experience into his book ‘Territorio Comanche’, focusing on the years of Bosnian massacres. That was in 1994, but his debut as a fiction writer started in 1983, with ‘El húsar’, a historical novella inspired in the Napoleonic era.

Although his debut was not quite successful, in 1988, with ‘The fencer master’, he put his name as a serious writer of historic novels. That was confirmed in 1996, when was published the first book of his Captain Alatriste saga, which has been his trademark. After this book, he could leave definitely journalism for focusing on his career as a fiction writer. This saga, that happens in the years of the Spanish golden age, has seen, for now, seven volumes, where Pérez-Reverte shows, from his particular point of view, historical events from Spanish history in the 16th century.

Apart from these, he also penned another successful works like Dumas Club and Flandes Panel, titles that, among others, made Pérez-Reverte one of the most famous and bestseller authors of Spanish fiction of our era.


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