Friday, July 10, 2009

Review: The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos

Summary: Irene dos Santos disappeared at age 15. Believed to have drowned while on holiday with her best friend, Lily Martinez, her body was never found. Now, years later, she appears ghostlike in Lily's dreams, prompting a quest for the truth behind her disappearance. Mysteriously, Lily, eight-months pregnant with her first child, slips and falls on the same day that the statue of Maria Lionza, Patron Saint of their Venezuelan town, cracks in two. Confined to her bed, Lily is surrounded by her family and closest friends, who agree that a Novena to Maria Lionza will guide the baby's spirit safely into the world. Together, through their nine nights of prayer, each offers a story to entertain Lily and her baby. What emerges is a vivid picture of Venezuela during a time of revolution and uncertainty-and the unraveling of the mystery behind Irene dos Santos. -- Grand Central Publishing

I have to admit that I have been procrastinating the writing of my review for THE DISAPPEARANCE OF IRENE DOS SANTOS by Margaret Mascarenhas. It was, without a doubt, a beautiful novel that I really enjoyed reading; however, I'm a little intimidated to be writing my thoughts down. I found the story to be quite interesting and the writing was fabulous, but I have a feeling that some of the nuances were lost on me. That's not to say that I didn't understand the book (or at least I think I did) but I'm not sure that I fully appreciate the blend of myth, dreams and reality that occur in some South American literature.

The minute that I finished this novel, I wanted to discuss it with someone. I wasn't sure that I totally "got it" and I had a few questions. I immediately started tweeting with Kathy (aka Bermudaonion) about her impressions, and I admit that I felt a little better after "talking" with her. Some parts of the book were very ambiguous to me, and I had my own ideas of what happened and why -- I was a little worried that I just wasn't smart enough to understand this book. After reflecting on this book for a few weeks, I realize that I did "get it" in my own way, and this book was actually written for a great deal of interpretation on the reader's part. I found myself thinking about this book for a very long time and I really do recommend it as an ideal book for discussion!

I always like it when I'm able to learn something about a book, and THE DISAPPEARANCE OF IRENE DOS SANTOS introduced a lot of new things to me. I do not have a strong background on South American history or literature, so please keep that in mind. I was not at all familiar with the icon of Maria Lionza and her cult-like status with some people in Venezuela. Maria Lionza is a mythogical Indian princess/goddess who has hundreds of thousands of followers. She is a symbol of national identity and her cult has been officially recognized by the democratic governments of Venezuela. She usually is depicted in two forms: Yara, a naked woman who is riding a tapir and holding a human pelvis or Maria, a Virgin Mary type character. I found the entire myth surrounding her and all the conflicting things she represents to be fascinating; and I thought the author did an amazing job of incorporating her as a recurring symbol throughout the novel.

I also really enjoyed learning more about the culture of Venezuela including the radio and television novellas that are so popular there. I found it very interesting that they use these basically soap operas as ways to educate and inform the viewers on topics such as health issues and social change. Again, I thought the author did a wonderful job of working these novellas into the novel; and I loved how she was able to blur the lines between reality and these stories.

If your book club enjoys reading literary fiction or South American literature, then you might want to consider choosing THE DISAPPEARANCE OF IRENE DOS SANTOS for a future meeting. One thing is for sure -- there will be a great deal to discuss; and I can pretty much promise that you are going to want to talk about this book with someone after you finish reading it! There is are some interesting features in the back of the book, including some essays as well as a reader's guide (both in English and Spanish), that will definitely enhance your discussion. (Note: I couldn't find a link to the reader's guide at this time.) Some examples of topics to discuss are: the symbolism of Maria Lionza in the novel, whether or not the characters in this novel are real or fictionalized, dreams versus reality, and the themes of revolution and resistance. It is a very deep and thought-provoking novel to say the least.

Miriam from Hachette hosted a BlogTalk Radio show with Ms. Mascarenhas a few weeks ago. I was fortunate enough to ask Ms. Mascarenhas a few questions about her novel (albeit through the chat room because I had both kids home with me.) I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the author discuss her inspiration for this novel and how she went about writing this book. She definitely has a unique writing process! If you'd like to learn more about the book, you can listen to the entire interview here.

A huge thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this beautifully written novel.


bermudaonion said...

Great review, Julie! I totally agree with you that this would make a great book for a book club - we had so much to talk about on Twitter!

Anna said...

I like books that allow for reader interpretation. Of course, I couldn't read them all the time. That would be too frustrating. lol Sounds like a good read. Thanks for the review!

Diary of an Eccentric

Libby's Library said...

I'm reading this book right now.
Yes it's filled with culture and myth, but I find it to be disjointed and hard to follow at times.

tashiana said...

This was an excellent review! I like that you were bold enough to admit you weren't sure you understood the book. It looks pretty interesting.

Jenners said...

I so relate to that feeling of feeling like you "missed something" or "weren't smart enough" to read a book. I read a book like that -- The Sister by Poppy Adams -- and thought after I read it "Did I miss something? Am I a moron? Did I not understand what happened?" But upon further discussion, I found that everyone who read the book felt similar. What a relief!

This description sounds so intriguing ... I remember when Bermudaonion wrote about it. Perhaps armed with your review and the info you provide, I will feel more at home with it. Great job!

Book Escape said...

This sounds like a thought-provoking book. Although, I hate it when I finish a book and still wonder if I got it. It takes some of the fun out of it for me.

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

I can relate to procrastinating with reviews because I'm not sure I grasp the message of the author (and sometimes a book is just so filled with powerful themes and beautiful language that I'm not sure I'll do it justice in a review.)

I like how you put your thoughts together on this one ... it gives me fair warning before diving into the book; I'll make sure I'm in the mood for some open-endedness :)

Margaret Mascarenhas said...

Hi, people. I usually don't comment on reviews, but Julie's drew me in because I am always fascinated by how readers who are not necessarily career reviewers of books perceive my work. And Julie has honed into a key element of my writing: I like to engage the reader in such a way as to let him/her interactively help create the story. By that, I mean each reader participates in the actual process of story-telling and comes to his/her own version of it. The genre I work in is eminently suited for this purpose. Whether I pulled it off or not, might very well be the subject of a book club discussion! Thank you all for reading and for such interesting feedback.

Unknown said...

I loved the book until the very end - I was more disappointed than anything else. I think the ending was unrealistic but so was the ending I was hoping for to be very honest.....

I really enjoyed learning about a different culture and would have loved even more "true history" thrown in. I think one of the strengths of the novel was the character development of the primary characters. Many of the main characters were vibrant, passionate, multi-dimensional.

Only other negative that it was hard for me to keep up with many of the characters. I had to keep flipping back pages. The multiple story lines did get confusing but ultimately were all tied together.

Overall I could not put it down and it is a book I will think about for quite some time now that I finished.