Romance, Farm Lore, India, and family.(BOOKS)(FICTION)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 19, 2002 | Go to article overview

Romance, Farm Lore, India, and family.(BOOKS)(FICTION)


Byline: Corinna Lothar, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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, na?ve 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. …

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