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Review: The Vineyard, by Maria Dueñas
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García
Atria, 2017. 530 pp. $26

When Mauro Larrea speaks, people listen. Admired in Mexico City for his business acumen, ability to take daredevil risks without blinking, and to carry himself as if he belongs wherever he goes, Mauro has what most would consider an enviable position. But he has also lost much in life — a couple fingers of his left hand, to an accident when he labored in silver mines in his youth; his beloved wife, Elvira, who died shortly after giving birth to their second child, Nicolás; his homeland (he was born in Spain); and now, nearly his entire fortune. The industrialist to whom he paid an exorbitant sum to ship him the latest in mining equipment has just died at the battle of Bull Run – for it’s 1861, and the Norteamericanos are slaughtering each other.

Not only is Mauro ruined, his adult children’s futures are at stake, for they would lose face, social position, and, in the case of Nicolás, an advantageous marriage. So for their sakes as well as his own, Mauro must leave Mexico City before the news gets out and make it seem as if his departure is simply another surprising but brilliant stroke in his inimitable entrepreneurial strategy. How he achieves this, I’ll leave you to discover, but I give you my word that he’s less than scrupulous, and that it’s very complicated.

So is the rest of The Vineyard, but before we get into that, let’s settle a question of genre. My friends at Atria have been offering me a steady diet of romances, a genre I dislike and have no patience for, though I did review one, thinking it would be something else, and regretted it. No regrets here. The Vineyard deals with deep passions, a rags-to-riches protagonist, Byzantine family cabals, and Latin locales vividly rendered, the themes and background common to much romantic literature. But The Vineyard isn’t a romance, capital R, especially not in the sense comparable to other authors named on the jacket flap.

Rather, in its whirr of subplots, each of which intrudes at the wrong moment for Mauro – but the right one to set up a “no; and furthermore” — the narrative recalls Alexander Dumas, père, and The Three Musketeers. Mauro is no D’Artagnan, a hot-blooded youth thirsting to drive a rapier between an opponent’s ribs. The duels in The Vineyard are psychological, based on swagger without the strut, a high-stakes gamesmanship, poker without the cards. Yet the comparison holds true, I think. And because the focus is money, especially inherited money, and the power it confers, for me that evokes another great nineteenth-century storyteller, Honoré de Balzac. Like him, Dueñas portrays Mauro constantly struggling to remain moral and not always succeeding. And also like Balzac, she pays attention to the emotional connection between character and reader, so that the morality feels personal, not abstract.

Consider this passage, when Mauro, in Cuba, contemplates accepting an offer to buy into a consortium that deals in slaves:

A firm, round breast loomed up at him. Attached to it, a tiny mouth sucking at a nipple. And, all at once, confronted by the simple image of a young mother with dark skin nursing a child, all those thoughts he had been desperately trying to thrust from his mind overwhelmed him with the force of a river bursting its banks. His hands extracting Nicolás from his wife Elvira’s bleeding body; his hands on [his daughter] Mariana’s belly the night of his departure from Mexico, sensing the new, unborn child. The skinny little slave girl violated by her aging master while she was cutting sugarcane; the baby daughter she had brought into the world when she was only thirteen, who was subsequently prized from her as one might peel away the skin of a fruit.

I’m not saying that Dueñas stands beside Dumas or Balzac, only making a point about possible literary ancestors and how she takes her craft seriously. This passage, though full of feeling, is unsentimental–which, to me, seems antithetical to romance, capital R–and describes great savagery, again perhaps atypical to that genre. Better yet, though Dueñas constructs an intricate plot and juggles its interlocking pieces with remarkable skill, she gives you the most compelling reason to turn the pages, fleshed-out characters with inner lives. If The Vineyard falls short, it’s that I find the story a bit operatic for my tastes, especially in its latter stages, with too much screeching. Likewise, some of the derring-do seems incredible, and the family rivalries can be hard to follow. But so long as we’re talking about opera, Dueñas generally hits the high notes, so it’s hard to complain.

The Vineyard is an entertaining, engaging novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.