After De Robertis’s other books, The Invisible Mountain and Perla, this was disappointing. The premise is interesting enough: a young Italian woman, Leda, arrives in Buenos Aires in 1913, when immigration is booming and the tango is on its way up from the brothels to become an international sensation. With a passion for the violin and few options for supporting herself, Leda disguises herself as a man to play tango; she discovers her attraction to women but is hampered by the need for secrecy.
This is a very well-written book, and that is both its greatest strength and perhaps the source of its greatest weakness. De Robertis has always been a “lyrical” writer (I put that word in quotes because it’s so overused, but it is accurate here), and in her earlier books the writing seemed at times to get away from her and shade into purple, but as a prose stylist she has matured. This book was clearly written by someone in love with language, and I enjoyed the writing without feeling it went over-the-top. Where it becomes rhapsodical, it’s describing strong emotions to which that register is appropriate.
But all that lyrical language results in a story that’s much more told than shown, making it difficult to invest in the plot or care much for any of the characters. Leda/Dante is meant to be living a dangerous life, but it’s hard to feel any sense of danger when it’s all wrapped up in flowery narrative summary, not to mention prefaced by a prologue letting us know that she comes through just fine. And conveniently, she’s a prodigy on the violin despite never having played before arriving in Buenos Aires. Thus, as a reader I was not feeling the character’s struggles.
And as in many books about coming of age or self-discovery, Leda/Dante’s personality is a cypher. We know what she wants, but not what she’s like; there’s no part of her that seems to be more than an adaptation to the circumstances of the moment. Sure, she’s confused about her sexuality and gender identity, but that doesn’t mean every aspect of her personality should be fluid. The other characters are one-note and their relationships with the protagonist underdeveloped, making it hard to care about anyone in the book. Years after reading De Robertis’s other books, Eva and Salome (of The Invisible Mountain) and, to a lesser extent, Perla, still stand out in my mind, but I am already forgetting Dante.
A couple of other notes. There is a predictable subplot involving Leda’s cousin, which fits awkwardly into the story and seems to have little purpose beyond pointing out that being female puts one at risk for abuse (a point sufficiently made through other characters). As for the historical background, the book certainly gives a sense of life in Buenos Aires in the early 20th century, but as someone familiar with Argentine history, it felt basic to me, as if the author’s research only skimmed the surface.
So, while I was initially intrigued by this book, it ultimately became tedious; as good as the writing is, a novel needs to engage the reader in the characters’ struggles more than this one did. May be good for readers looking to be seduced by lyrical writing about music and sex, but less so for those seeking a plot. For a faster-paced and less sex-driven book about an American historical figure with a similar story, check out The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell.