One of my favorite paradoxes that exists between literature and its readers is literature’s ability to compel its readers to want to go places to which they don’t really want to go. When I open my brand new copy of George. R. R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons and sniff its freshly printed pages (OK, I admit I’m a little strange when it comes to new books), I am not only aroused by the anticipation of what might soon happen to favorite characters Tyrion Lannister and Arya Stark, but I also simply cannot wait to be transported back to Westeros, a mystical world I have grown to love. Of course, given the opportunity, I don’t really have any intention of stepping foot in King’s Landing or Winterfell—I’m actually quite partial to living my own world with a larger variety of medicine than leeches and amputations and a larger variety of alcohol than mead—just as I would turn down travelling prospects to Charles Dickens’s Victorian London slums and Stephen King’s Derry, Maine. It’s a paradox we as readers are all familiar with, if not entirely conscious of, and the allure intrinsic to it is one of the many reasons we escape to such dark realms from the comforts of our living rooms, cafes, and airports.
Mario Vargas Llosa doesn’t actually take us to such places in his modest epic (how’s that for paradox? Ha! Take that, Shakespeare!) The Bad Girl. We do traverse decades and continents and are placed on the periphery of some pretty exciting, though not often discussed, events in twentieth century history—Cuban revolutionary training in Paris, the 1968 military coup d’état in Peru, the Japanese Yakuza’s illicit deals in Africa, to name a few—but we do so on the heels and narration of our protagonist, Ricardo Somocurcio, with a similar distance to what we experience with, say, Forrest Gump. I began this review describing that paradox, however, because The Bad Girl took me not to a physical but to an emotional place to which I never want to actually visit again.
Amid its vividly rendered atmosphere of society, culture and history, Vargas LLosa’s story is one of obsessive, unstable love. I’m not talking about the trials and tribulations of an unhealthy relationship (although it certainly is that) that you normally find in literary novels but about brazen, unrequited teenage angst love, a la Romeo and Juliet or Cheap Trick’s “I want you to want me,” spread out over an entire lifetime. Yes, the kind of love we all experience but know is bad for us, so, over time, we grow up and look back dubiously at whether that experience actually was or ever could be honest love, thereby doubting the validity of any such occurrences we experience in literary fiction. (I recognize that I might only be speaking for myself when I say “we,” but at least bear with me as I separate the kind of book The Bad Girl is from the kind of book 50 Shades of Gray is.)
The Bad Girl is not the love story I set out wanting to read, but there came a point early on in the novel where I allowed myself to succumb to its power and let it carry me throughout. Ricardo, our aforementioned protagonist, is obsessed/in love with a woman who goes by many names but is consistently referred to as the bad girl. Despite the fact that she not only rejects his protestations of love but is also verbally and emotionally abusive, he follows her around the world throughout his entire life on the hope that she will one day fall in love with him as well. Had the genders been reversed in this relationship, I probably would have dismissed the novel early as another slightly misogynistic pop romance (no offense if that’s your bag), but the protagonist in the novel is a man, and I also know that Mario Vargas Llosa is recognized as one of this generation’s top literary authors.
Vargas Llosa’s meticulous character development and poignantly gripping scenes makes this unrequited love work so well that I myself lost my breath several times throughout my reading experience. It is a tormented rock ballad inside a literary novel, and although I do not want to actually experience such a painfully lovesick state any more than I want to actually visit Westeros, I could not wait, each time I opened the novel, to fall back in love with the bad girl and let her drag me, along with Ricardo Somocurcio, all over the world. The Bad Girl, for me, was an escape into pain and longing, and I dug every minute of it.
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