Is any love story less than embattled and bittersweet? Mario Varga Llosa wades comfortably in profound queries about the nature of love, identity and life’s purpose in his latest novel. Read my full review below; a shorter version, edited down for space, ran in the Miami Herald on 10/7.

The Bad Girl
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Edith Grossman
FSG; 275 pages; $25

Reviewed by CHRISTINE THOMAS

There’s always that one individual who gets under your skin—the person who consumes your thoughts, who you swear you don’t want anything to do with, but always go back to no matter how much she or he mistreats you. For Ricardo Somocurcio, the anodyne narrator of Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, it’s the eponymous “bad girl” who haunts him from age fifteen living in Peru throughout decades of adulthood in Paris. Their cyclical, sadomasochistic dance powers the narrative and soon shrewdly inverts the conventional portrait of true love.

A protean, despicable character, the bad girl rotates through distinct identities, whether as Lily, the vibrant and provocative Chilean girl; plain yet demanding Arlette the guerrilla fighter; or the glamorous wife, in turn, of a French diplomat, an English horseman, and a Japanese illegal goods trader. Yet no matter her appearance or designation, she is bent on acquiring and displaying wealth, and inside remains “a monster of egotism and insensitivity.”

In her presence Ricardo, too, transforms—from dedicated translator and interpreter into a masochistic “little puissant,” powerless in the face of her scabrous charms. During her absences—be they a few days or a decade—he turns to the dependable formula of unremitting work, study and exercise, generally satisfied with the isolated routine of his expatriate life. But that’s his very problem. “‘You’re very nice,’” the bad girl tells him, “‘but you have a terrible defect: lack of ambition. You’re satisfied with what you have, aren’t you? But it isn’t anything, good boy. That’s why I couldn’t be your wife. I’ll never be satisfied with what I have. I’ll always want more.’”

And she’s right—Ricardo’s sole recipe for happiness is living in Paris and being with the bad girl, and his lack of pride and ambition, and his unavailing, blind obsession makes him just as distasteful as she is. Even as the Peruvian revolution brews and erupts, Ricardo remains indifferent and immovable: “I had absolutely no interest in politics; in fact, I despised politics, and all my dreams were focused…on getting a nice steady job that would let me spend, in the most ordinary way, the rest of my days in Paris.” His life lacks substance, one of merely interpreting others’ words without even paying attention to their meaning—his identity tied only to his love for her.

But this is the brilliance of Llosa’s stunning story, for just when the depiction of bad girl as villain and Ricardo as caring, dedicated hero seems fixed, Llosa erodes and reverses it. When Ricardo unreservedly exposes his unappealing side, the bad girl also exhibits decency, so that even when she abandons him yet again, Llosa compassionately makes clear that Ricardo is also the victim of his own passivity, and she of her own desperate, dysfunctional quest to escape poverty.

And in Llosa’s capable hands, this recounting is both moving and captivating. New characters, identities, and settings are seductively and cleverly introduced as the story seamlessly travels the globe via Ricardo’s interpreting work, straddles the changing world culture from the 1950s to present, and tracks the arc of Peruvian politics. Each chapter reads like its own complete narrative, yet blends impeccably into the next to form a well-paced, dynamic whole.

Punctuated by the magic of chance meetings and rediscovered romance, and wading comfortably in profound queries about the nature of identity and life’s purpose, “The Bad Girl” is a beleaguered, bittersweet love story that evokes the wonder: Is there any other kind of love story?

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