by Ángela Vallvey
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
This is an odd book. I know this because every time I mentioned a scene to my friends they were incredulous as to why I would want to read such a book. But even with the weirdness, I thought it pretty good.
It’s also cerebral, much in the manner of Sophie’s World. There’s a simple storyline told in simple language but you rarely get through a paragraph without learning some philosophy.
You can tell it’s going to be cerebral from the start because the main characters are Ulysses, Penelope and their infant son Telemachus. They’re living in modern-day Madrid and very much aware of the provenance of their names (in fact it’s why they named their son as they did) but that doesn’t stop the author comparing their life events to episodes in The Odyssey.
Ulysses and Penelope are separated. She left him holding the baby when Telemachus was just three months old to pursue her career in fashion design. This episode is not told fully until more than halfway through the book, though it is referred to often. The first section of the novel is told from Ulysses’ perspective so it is a bit of a jolt to finally hear Penelope’s side of things and realise she had her reasons, and not bad ones either. I was impressed by how this was handled.
Another large element of the first part of the novel is Penelope’s father Vili’s class that he teaches at the Academy about the philosophy of happiness. Vallvey details a lot of conversations held at these classes, and also snapshots of the lives of several class members. These add interesting colour around Ulysses’ seemingly endless search for his own happiness.
So far so good, although the endless quotes do get a bit tiresome. But what I found disconcerting was how…comfortable the characters are with their bodies and discussing sex. I’m no prude but there were a couple of scenes at which I cringed and struggled to believe could be real. Maybe it’s a Spanish thing.
It was an entertaining read with some good comic moments and some interesting observations. However, I found the philosophising a little tedious and felt there was too much of a tendency to judge characters’ actions.
First published in Spain in 2002 by Ediciones Destino.
This translation first published in Great Britain in 2004 by Viking.