three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
By: 
Marie Arana
user_rating: 
0

A-Lima NightsMarie Arana recently retired as editor of the Washington Post Book World. Born in Lima, Peru, she is the author of the acclaimed memoir American Chica (2001), about the cultural clash between North and South America, and the novel Cellophane ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Sept/Oct 2006), an Amazonian saga.

The Story: One night in 1986, middle-aged Carlos Bluhm, a camera salesman from prominent German origins, spies Maria Fernandez, a dark-skinned, 15-year-old Indian tango dancer from Lima’s slums—and is smitten. Maria views an affair with Carlos as the way out of her dangerous, deprived life, but Carlos fails to consider their different social worlds before embarking on a passionate affair with her and alienating his wife and children. Twenty years later, against all odds, Maria and Carlos still live together—uneasily, unmarried, in Carlos’s decaying mansion. As they face their differences, issues of race, class, and war emerge.
Dial. 246 pages. $25. ISBN: 0385342586

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] study in contrasts and a devastating cross-cultural and cross-racial urban love story as sinuous, precise and incendiary as a tango. … Like a surgeon making an incision, Arana slowly but surely reveals why the Indian and the German live as strangers." Donna Seaman

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[M]uch of the writing in Lima Nights, compared to Arana’s dazzling, verbally lush first novel, Cellophane, has a deliberate simplicity and lucidity that allows the reader to peer far beneath the surface of Peruvian culture where racism, distrust and resentment are the natural state of relations between white and dark-skinned people. … . It is a testimony to this author’s finesse that despite a certain pull of inevitability, we are kept in suspense until the last word." Joseph Olshan

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]he author shows us how easy it is to deceive ourselves and others when following a forbidden path of sex and love. … The tensions between the couple and their mix-ups in communication—a word spoken in anger or haste, a word unspoken, a gesture made, a gesture lost—become more and more agonizing." Frances Itani

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"At its best moments, Arana’s prose soars with poetic imagery, evocative description and moving characterization. … Despite its flaws, Lima Nights offers a novel way to map the collective social and racial hang-ups of a country." A. H. Goldstein

Christian Science Monitor 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The second half of the novel, with its question of whether the sheer weight of time and sacrifices inadvertently made can turn the couple’s relationship into a permanent commitment is much more interesting. But Carlos is so banal and self-absorbed, he begs the question: If the unexamined life isn’t worth living, is it worth reading about?" Yvonne Zipp

Critical Summary

In some respects, Lima Nights is an age-old story about the usual doomed love affair. In others, the tale is not so typical: as Arana delves deep inside her characters to explore Peru’s class, social, and generational tensions, an unpredictable story unfolds. While critics disagreed about the relative success of the first half of the novel (which takes place in 1986) versus the second (the present-day story), they concurred that Arana deftly limns the relationship between Carlos and Maria and the changes and power struggles that emerge over time. A couple of critics faulted the characterizations and language ("forced and wooden," said the Rocky Mountain News), but overall, Lima Nights is a beautiful, mournful novel about the deceptions of love.