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the complete review - fiction
The Bad Girl
Mario Vargas Llosa
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- Spanish title: Travesuras de la niña mala
- Translated by Edith Grossman
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B- : the girl's not bad enough, the passion not convincing enough
See our review for fuller assessment.
No consensus, lots of Flaubert-comparisons, the American critics much more taken with it than most of the others
From the Reviews:
- "The first chapter, set in the 50s in a feverish Lima where mambo rules, is the most vivid and engaging of the book. Unfortunately, the story of the endless tease of la niña mala drags on predictably for way too many pages, along with routine observations about the Paris of the existentialists, Swinging London, or the dreadful governments of Peru." - Carlos Rodriguez Martorell, Críticas
- "This is hardly Vargas Llosa’s finest novel -- it is trivial in comparison to earlier works such as The Feast of the Goat. Peru’s most famous author is less interested in style than in robust storytelling. We get little help from the competent but mostly flat English translation. The pleasure to be had in this book comes from the sharply recognisable portrayal of human foibles such as lust, feebleness or greed at their most extreme." - Angel Gurria-Quintana, Financial Times
- "Daß die Überfrachtung mit historischen und literarischen Anspielungen den Roman nicht scheitern läßt, dafür sorgt eine nur gelegentlich trivial wirkende Haltung epischer Naivität, mit der wie selbstverständlich berichtet wird, was um seiner selbst willen verdient berichtet zu werden. Diese sich schlicht gebende, in Wahrheit sorgsam ausgearbeitete Kunstübung hält das Heterogene wundersam zusammen und widerlegt zugleich die modernistischen Verbote unzeitgemäßer Stilmittel. Der Leser fühlt sich von diesem großen Autor einmal wieder bewegt, belehrt und belustigt und (je nach Alter) beinahe gerührt an Zeiten erinnert, in denen alles besser werden sollte." - Friedmar Apel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Mario Vargas Llosa's immense resources as a novelist are energetically applied to the surface of this tale of obsessive love -- quick scene changes from one cosmopolitan location to another, lightning sketches of Peruvian political history, a bustling cast of eccentrics and revolutionaries, literary allusions galore -- but the love story itself never develops a convincing heartbeat." - James Lasdun, The Guardian
- "The Bad Girl feels as if it should be a cautionary tale about the dangers of being timid. (...) Then again, the bad girl's unrestrained hunger for money and power is so rapacious that she is never happy either. In fact, the only thing you really know for sure about either Ricardo or the bad girl is that they are unfulfilled. But, rather than moralising, Vargas Llosa just unfolds their story; and, as a result, The Bad Girl is both provocative and oddly satisfying." - Alyssa McDonald, New Statesman
- "The Bad Girl is influenced by Flaubert beyond its offhand references. (...) His characters (...) are almost Dickensian in their dimensions, unabashed stereotypes of their native lands. The love affair is painful, perverse, and perpetual, relying entirely on unlikely coincidences. (...) The Bad Girl is not without its quiet, more subdued moments but, for the most part, raucous sadomasochism has never been so much fun." - Chloë Schama, The New York Sun
- "The Bad Girl is one of those rare literary events: a remaking rather than a recycling. (...) The reader knows that Ricardo and the girl who began as Lily will cross paths indefinitely, that she will allow him to possess her only long enough to rekindle his obsession, and that despite his intention to give her up for the toxic addiction she is, he will take her back the next time. Still, the novel possesses an intensifying, at points almost exhausting suspense, like that of a car being driven recklessly around hairpin turns, each more perilous than the one preceding. The bad girl demands attention from lovers and readers alike." - Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review
- "The novel is one of Vargas Llosa's most straightforwardly linear narratives, and the details of the narrator's life bear some similarity to the author's. Born at the same time, like his author Ricardo spent much of his life away from Peru (an accusation many were quick to make during Vargas Llosa's presidential bid) and often feels guilty for having abandoned his country. (...) The frequently repeated descriptions of the bad girl's body and the minute details of all their sexual encounters are inflected with the nostalgia of age and regret. Vargas Llosa has captured the exquisite pain of sexual obsession and the human capacity for cruelty and created a compelling narrative that brims with compassion." - Stephanie Merritt, The Observer
- "Most impressively, by mirroring Ricardo and the bad girl's tug-of-war with the tug-of-war between democracy and totalitarianism that concurrently roils the world, and especially their native Peru, Vargas Llosa's novel becomes an allegory for the undauntable desire not just for love but also for freedom. Over and over again, the world dashes our hopes just as the bad girl disappoints Vargas Llosa's narrator -- and yet we love it and keep hoping for the best anyway." - Heller McAlpin, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Mario Vargas Llosa, now in his eighth decade, has achieved a brilliant success with this novel. Its narrator makes regular reference to Russian literature, which cannot be accidental, since this is a work written in the Tolstoyan mode: it addresses moral and philosophical issues, but does so within an immensely moving story, rather than within a novel of ideas." - Simon Baker, The Spectator
- "Awkwardly pitched somewhere between realism and magic realism, The Bad Girl keeps stressing how enigmatic its heroine is. But the real puzzle it poses is why Vargas Llosa should have misapplied his talents to this feeble fabrication that, getting underway with colourful buoyancy, fizzles out so thoroughly that reading it is like watching a balloon deflate." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
- "The novel contains serious criticisms of Peru's treatment of its poorer citizens. It is also a clever homage to Flaubert, of whom Vargas Llosa has often written admiringly. All the same, there is a wonderful bolero cheesiness about some of the scenes, especially as Ricardo learns about each new identity of his lover in increasingly outlandish ways. (...) I have some reservations. The Bad Girl's stated ambition -- to be "your lapdog, your whore" -- strays uncomfortably into male fantasy, as does the retribution visited on her. But that is the story Vargas Llosa wanted to tell, and he does it brilliantly." - Miranda France, The Telegraph
- "The plot strains credibility to the point of insulting the reader. How often can a man bump into a married woman at a party and not realise that it is the same married woman with whom he had an affair in another country when she was married to someone else ? But the two main characters are both well drawn and, as they tumble compulsively into bed, without being able to commit to each other emotionally, an intriguing sado-masochistic dynamic is established." - David Robson, The Telegraph
- "A book that, without the slightest trace of irony, punishes female ambition and sexual freedom with such a spectacular lack of originality is just too heavy-handed for me. If it were by Jackie Collins, it wouldn't matter; but from Llosa it is deeply dissatisfying." - Sarah Vine, The Times
- "She really is a bad girl, and his will be a sentimental education one wouldn’t wish on anybody, yet we can hardly imagine that Ricardo would have had it any other way. And since, for narratives as for mistresses, there are clear advantages in unpredictability, the result is a wonderfully seductive and enthralling novel. (…) It would be wrong to suggest that Travesuras de la niña mala is "really" more serious than it seems: it is a joyous romp, albeit one haunted by despair." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement
- "The Bad Girl has an international quality, and for an English-speaking reader, Vargas Llosa's markedly European sensibility consistently undercuts the book's self-conscious exoticism. (...) (F)rustration increases desire as well as breeding annoyance, and there are always enough surprises to keep the story going. Vargas Llosa's humour cuts through it -- he knows Ricardo is infuriating." - Lidija Haas, Times Literary Supplement
- "Mario Vargas Llosa's perversely charming new novel isn't among his major books (...) but it is irresistibly entertaining and, like all of its author's work, formidably smart." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
- "Freunde der Bücher von Vargas Llosa werden verblüfft sein. Der sonst so sprachgewaltige Peruaner schildert die zahllosen Stationen der Liebesbeziehung zwischen dem Dolmetscher und dem Mädchen aus Lima mit einer kargen, fast journalistisch wirkenden Sprache, die gelegentlich sogar die Kolportage streift." - Lothar Schmidt-Mühlisch, Die Welt
- "Wer sich von dem Roman das erhofft, wofür Mario Vargas Llosa bisher bekannt war, der könnte allerdings enttäuscht werden. (… ) Mit der Verlegung der Handlung von Peru nach Europa erfährt das Werk einen stilistischen Bruch. Die Sprache wird aufgeräumter, schmuckloser, die Konzentration auf die Handlung wird erhöht, und das bekommt dem Werk erstaunlich gut." - Susanne Kirsch, Welt am Sonntag
- "Humor and tragedy are carefully woven in a linear narrative depicting a relationship filled with treason, melodrama, and eroticism. (...) A novel of lighthearted, humorous moments, with many dramatic twists and turns in its plot, Travesuras de la niña mala also reflects on the craft of fiction." - César Ferreira, World Literature Today
- "Wenn also Vargas Llosa uns über die letzten Jahrzehnte und ihre Metropolen nicht mehr als Schulbuchwissen sagen kann, wenn er sich von den Verwicklungen einer vertrackten Liebe nicht herausfordern lässt und wenn er selbst die Lust am virtuos verknüpfenden Erzählen bequem dem Zufall überlässt, dann bleiben nur noch Tod und Katastrophe, um der Geschichte den Respekt zu zollen, den sie verdient. (…) Man muss es leider sagen: Dies Buch zeigt einen ehemaligen Könner, der, wenn man es freundlich formulieren will, diesmal einfach zu faul war, seine außerordentlichen Talente auszuspielen." - Jochen Jung, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
In a way The Bad Girl is a success, as the last words of the novel have the bad girl expose the narrator as a wannabe writer who never had the courage to try his hand at it:
At least admit I've given you the subject for a novel.
Haven't I, good boy ?
Vargas Llosa's narrator, Ricardo Somocurcio, spends most of his life as a translator and interpreter, and his account of his life -- the book that is presented as The Bad Girl -- reads much like the memoir of a well-read man who never wrote creatively at any length before but who thinks he has good material to work with and finally lets himself be convinced to set his story down on paper.
The result is exactly what one would expect: it's workmanlike and carefully put together, but largely unremarkable.
Like most people who write about their lives, Ricardo is mistaken in thinking his is of much interest.
There are interesting parts, as in every life, but that's not enough, not as it's presented here.
Ricardo perhaps recognised that -- and certainly the bad girl did -- as the choice of title suggests.
But, unfortunately, Ricardo doesn't know how to work with that material, and though he may have been handed the "subject for a novel" on a platter he can't take it up completely -- or get over himself --
and writes a novel (cum memoir) that should have been titled 'The Good Boy' instead.
Ricardo is from Peru.
His one great ambition, from early on, is to live in Paris, and he manages to achieve that goal, eventually becoming an interpreter.
He is more or less able to leave Peru behind -- orphaned, he was raised by his aunt, who also passes away, leaving him enough of an inheritance to buy a flat in Paris -- but he remains always haunted by his first great love.
He is still a teenager when he first meets her, and, as teenagers are wont to do: "I was so hot for Lily I was burning up".
The embers of that passion never really die down.
His falling for her is understandable:
With her model's looks, her dark mischievous eyes, and her small mouth with full lips, Lily was the incarnation of coquettishness.
There's also considerable mystery surrounding her, from where she's from to who her family is.
She keeps everyone in the dark -- or tries to: here, as later, the truth (or something damagingly close enough to it) is revealed, spoiling her fun.
She toys around with Ricardo's affections she also keeps him at some distance.
He's the romantic, and she's the tease.
It turns out that 'Lily' isn't who she claimed to be, and she disappears from Ricardo's life -- only to pop almost right back in, again and again.
Hurrying ahead, Vargas Llosa has her appear in various guises so that by page 40 (!) she has been the teenage flirt Lily, the would-be guerilla fighter Comrade Arlette (one way to escape Peru), and then Madame Robert Arnoux, the wife of a French diplomat.
Meanwhile, Ricardo is establishing himself as -- as she puts it -- a "little pissant transaltor for UNESCO", small fry compared to the men the bad girl is willing to be kept by.
Yes, the bad girl is a fun character; unfortunately, the book centres on Ricardo, leaving the bad girl seen only through his swooning eyes (he never really gets over her) which only catch up with her every couple of years (over decades).
She can't escape Ricardo either, letting him come back into her life when she's in the neighbourhood (and, eventually, also seeking him out), but she's never satisfied with what she has and transforms herself and her life several more times, marrying yet another man in England, and then becoming the plaything of a Tokyo gangster.
When she's out of his life -- most of the time -- Ricardo lives his relatively simple existence.
There are visits to Peru, a friendship with the neighbours, and when he advances in age he actually shacks up with another woman for a while, but, as he explained to a friend early on:
for many years I had been in love with a woman who came and went in my life like a will-'o'-the-wisp, lighting it up with happiness for short periods of time and then leaving it dry, sterile, immune to any other enthusiasm or love.
It's a cycle that continues, too, and he's got himself pegged there pretty well -- but there's more of Ricardo struggling to break out throughout the novel.
Unfortunately, what more there is isn't that interesting, not in the way it's presented.
And it's the presence of the bad girl, on-screen or off, that seems to make it impossible for Vargas Llosa to get his story straight.
He doesn't seem to know what book he wants to write: a novel centred around one, great life-long passion, or the story of how Ricardo manages despite this millstone.
There's either too much of the bad girl in the book or too little for the novel to work.
And what there is is often plain annoying.
Ricardo's continuing passion also comes to be hard to believe.
At one point Vargas Llosa actually has him set to fling himself off a Paris bridge, but it's an almost entirely unconvincing scene (not least in its resolution).
The bad girl's often unconscionable badness has it's appeal, but he can't run with it, not all the way.
Ricardo realises she might not be the best thing for him, but always lets himself get sucked back in, even when she's no longer the great beauty -- indeed, she becomes more and more of a physical wreck.
He should know better when she claims to have revised her idea of happiness:
I said it was money, finding a man who was powerful and very rich.
I was wrong.
Now I know that you are happiness for me.
But the bad girl remains as flighty as ever, so even that happiness can only last so long.
Shockingly, Vargas Llosa can only resort to the melodramatic in the final resolution of the story, a sappy ending that does allow Ricardo to move on but isn't worthy of a writer like Vargas Llosa.
(On the other hand, it's exactly the sort of ending one would expect from an unimaginative writer like Ricardo Somocurcio .....)
The Bad Girl moves along steadily enough, with interesting bits -- smaller observations, some of the side-episodes (Ricardo's various acquaintances and their stories are fairly well presented, for example) -- but it's an inconsistent whole.
The bad girl's story is just itching to burst out, but the reader is only given Ricardo's very limited (in every sense) perspective, and Ricardo doesn't know how to make his life-story, with and without her, compelling either, even as the potential is there (it's not an exciting life, but there's enough here to suggest he could have made something of it).
It makes for an odd, muddled novel: yes, Vargas Llosa successfully imitates the style of an amateur novelist, but that success comes at a high price (because much of it reads like it's ... by an amateur novelist).
Among the ways of reading The Bad Girl is, of course, to see it as an alternate-autobiography, Vargas Llosa imagining the man he could have become.
The dates and some of the details match, as Vargas Llosa's life is mirrored, to some extent in Ricardo's -- but Vargas Llosa turned to writing at a very young age, and Ricardo never dared.
Is this Vargas Llosa's story of the man (and writer) he didn't become ?
But even if that is what the novel is meant to be, it falls short in too many ways to be considered a success.
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The Bad Girl:
Mario Vargas Llosa:
Other works by Mario Vargas Llosa under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010.
He has written many works of fiction and non-fiction, and has run for the Presidency of Peru.
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