The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa

Sometimes a book doesn’t seem particularly remarkable or memorable when you first finish it, but then it stays with you, festering. That is what happened to me with The Bad Girl. It is a story of old age. A good boy, Ricardo Somocurcio, meets the eponymous “Bad Girl” and becomes obsessed with her, even though she has a habit of disappearing without a trace only to reappear years later–a pattern that continues his entire life. This story is framed as Ricardo’s memories of his encounters for her and, for the most part, it is a pretty straightforward story of love and loss. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I came to Llosa through the list of Nobel laureates (he won in 2010) and had my interest piqued because his named kept coming up along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez as one of the titans of 20th century Latin American literature. The Bad Girl is the first of his book I have read, but, published in 2006, it is clearly a mature novel. As I said, a novel of old age, both in subject and in mood.

Ricardo Somocurcio is a teenage Peruvian from a family of moderate means. He has a bit of a talent for languages and a dream of living in Paris. One summer he meets a “Chilean” girl who comes to hang out with his friends and begins to date her, but toward the end of the summer she disappears. His life continues, he goes to Paris and becomes a translator and where the bad girl crosses paths with him several more times, each time in a different guise and with a different husband.

She treats the good boy badly. His income is insufficient for her and when she leaves him it is always for a man with more money and more power. But she also always comes back, asking him to tell her sweet, empty things about how much he loves her. And he does, both love her and tell her the words. He sees other women from time to time, but the bad girl is the only woman he actually loves with this much deep devotion. At the same time, the story takes place through the span of decades and there are subtle changes in the world that the non-couple inhabits.

I found myself sympathetic to Ricardo, as I imagine Llosa intended, but there was nothing in particular that jumped out as remarkable or memorable. I put down the book thinking to myself that he was not as powerful a character as the subject of other stories about obsession such as (for example) Humbert Humbert in Lolita. But, ironically, Ricardo’s mundane appearance amps up the pathos of the story, in large part because he manages to live up to the “good boy” moniker that the bad girl gives to him and the contrast between the two characters is extreme.

In a conversation about the new HBO show “Looking” on this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, Glen Weldon made a point that sex, whether on TV or books, is sometimes perceived as plot development rather than as added dialogue. Sex features prominently in the relationship between the good boy and the bad girl in this book and in a way that I found awkward and difficult. But it is part of the relationship that the two of them have and is in its own way touching, particularly because Llosa contrasts what they have with sexual dynamics that involve people other than just the two of them.

The Bad Girl is not a story of daring adventure or intrigue, but a study of affection, obsession, and, at times, love. It is pretty well paced, but that pacing is deliberate and subdued instead of intense and manic. When I had just finished the book, I thought that it was good, but a week on my appreciation for it has grown. The reason for this is that, on some level, I am still trying to work through the emotions that Llosa works the reader through and the dominant impression I am left with is profound sadness that few other books have elicited.

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