- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

The title Tarzan's Tonsillitis (Pantheon, $23, 262 pages) is a great one. "Tarzan" is how the exuberant Fernanda Maria de la Trinidad del Monte Montes, the central character of Peruvian writer Alfredo Bryce Echenique's new novel, refers to herself in the letters she writes to the narrator, Juan Manuel Carpio.
Juan Manuel, a Peruvian of Indian extraction living in Paris in the 1960s and trying to make a living as a composer and singer of ballads, is swept off his feet by Fernanda, a tall skinny redhead from El Savador. Fernanda Mia, as Juan Manuel calls her, is a proper, well educated young woman, nave enough to have mistaken a residence de jeunes filles for a genuine home for young ladies rather than the establishment of ill repute it actually was.
The romance between these two goes up and down over the years. Fernanda returns to Central America, marries a photographer who drinks too much and lacks ambition, and has two children. Juan Manuel remains in Paris, slowly becomes successful and travels around the world singing his songs. Tied by a strong affection for one another, Fernanda and Juan Manuel continue their love affair with occasional encounters and many letters.
As revolution rips El Salvador apart and "everyone is trying to secure his place in some private world," Fernanda finds the place "pretty, ugly, horrible, insane, mediocre, explosive, easy, extremely difficult, dangerous, with a pretty warm sea filled with delicious oysters and conch, with hellish heat during the midday traffic." She and her children flee to California.
The years pass; the lovers meet occasionally, separate and continue to write.This is a story of the endurance of love and friendship, told with wit and elegance by Mr. Echenique, and ably translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam. But although Fernanda is alive and vivid, the character of Juan Manuel is ill defined; he remains an observer rather than a participant.

There is considerable charm in William F. Weld's new novel, Stillwater (Simon & Schuster, $23, 240 pages). It is an evocative, sweet coming of age story, entwined with local folk lore, political shenanigans and a story of young love worthy of Colette.
Jamieson Kooby, who lives with his admirable grandmother after the death of his parents, is 15 years old the summer that the valley in western Massachusetts his family and neighbors have been farming for decades is to be inundated to make room for a new reserveroir.
Jamieson, his best friend Caleb and Hannah, the orphaned girl with whom Jamieson falls in love, spend a last glorious summer exploring the quarries, mineshafts and tunnels which have been their playground. "In early June the edge and quickness seeped out of the air. At first it was only a stillness, a stillness that bore promise of heat." Later, in July of 1938, the summer of the flooding it was "stunningly hot, low-hanging air you felt you must push away from you in order to breathe."
Hannah is able to commune with nature, with the past and sometimes with the future. As she and Jamieson explore their valley that summer, the reader is carried along through the fields, in the swimming holes and into their hearts.
Mr. Weld is a former governor of Massachusetts, and he includes some fine spicy satire in his story. But deceit and graft do not win out and the villains get what they deserve. And while the farmers lose their valley and young love does not triumph, Jamieson does survive a tender, bittersweet moment of time and the losses he must endure.

Rajiv "recall[ed] feeling as though situated in a demilitarized zone between two nations, [his] own allegiances unclear. Times when these two countries would meet, [he] felt perpetually nervous that one side would commit some breach of etiquette, egregious, unforgivable, that would forever doom them in the eyes of the other. Accordingly, [he] lived in a way that separated, as cleanly as was possible, the groups, one from another, spiriting [his] family from [his] friends, [his] friends from [his] family."
Rajiv is the creation of Sameer Parekh who was born in the United States, attended Brown University and went to India in 1996 on a Fulbright scholarship. Stealing the Ambassador (Free Press, $23, 272 pages) is Mr. Parekh's first novel, a story of three generations of Gujurathis: a bomb-throwing grandfather who believes that life should matter, his son, Vasant, who was sent to America to get an education and young Rajiv, caught between the two cultures.
The narrative jumps between Vasant's more or less successful attempts at integration in America, and Rajiv's search for his roots in Gujarat. Vasant doesn't marry his American girlfriend, Anne, but opts for a traditional Indian wife chosen by his family; he makes friends with the neighbors, but never reaches a level of intimacy.
Rajiv, after the death of his father, goes back to India to visit his grandparents, where he immerses himself in their life in a two-room apartment. Grandmother Ba does not appear to be marked by the years she spent in prison because her husband blew up a British bridge. Grandfather Bapuji still has his revolutionary ideas.
The stolen ambassador is not a diplomat; it's a car, "modeled after the British Motors Corporation Morris Oxford, originally produced in 1948, copied by Hindustan Motors in 1950" and thereafter driven by the Indians year in and year out, despite "cars smaller and sleeker, more efficient, more reliable." Rajiv steals the car from his uncle and takes his grandfather on a wild ride. He returns to America after his visit "home," with a renewed sense of self and his place in American life.
Mr. Parekh has captured the essence of the hope and loneliness of the immigrant experience, the prejudices encountered and the idiosyncrasies of transplanted life. He writes with satiric wit and tender melancholy. His narrative is alive with well observed truth.

In Sue Miller's new novel The World Below (Knopf, $25, 275 pages) is a sunken town lying silently beneath the waters of a small lake in Maine, which Cath (Catherine) discovered on a fishing trip with her grandfather. It also refers to the private world hidden below the surface of what each character reveals publicly.
Cath, divorced for the second time, has returned to her grandparents' house in Maine. There she finds her grandmother, Georgia's, diary of the time the latter spent in a tuberculosis sanitarium. Georgia's mother had died early and the young girl had taken charge of her father's household.
Upon her return from the "san," Georgia married her doctor and they shared what was apparently a long and happy life together. But the diary reveals another side of Georgia; her love for and relationship with a doomed fellow patient; the devastation and loneliness of the young girl's stay at the "san" and her development into the grandmother Cath loved so dearly.
In the course of the winter Cath spends in Maine, she discovers not only the truth about her grandparents' relationship, but she examines her own marriages, her children and the choices life has made available to her.
The novel is particularly engrossing in the details of Georgia's youth and her life in the sanitarium. It's sometimes difficult for the reader to focus on which generation is being discussed, but as a somewhat self-indulgent story of personal discovery, this is a good, light read.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.



Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide