Sunday, June 13, 2010

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon

I was out last night at a rooftop bar, which served to remind me of just how much I love the indoor smoking ban. I got home sometime after 3 am with hair that smelled of smoke and a sore throat. And now, in the mid-afternoon, I've washed my hair twice and am drinking tea with more than a little honey in an attempt to ease my sore throat while watching Germany take the Australians to school in a thoroughly entertaining manner. (As a side note, these guys are amazing. How is it even possible to be in such good shape?) We're having the perfect gray and rainy weather for a lazy Sunday here in New York though, which makes me feel far less guilty than I otherwise would about sitting around in my pajamas.

Happily, when I was reading Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon a couple weeks ago, New York was having positively summery weather. And while I, alas, read it in all the usual places--my home, the subway, on a plane ride home from Buffalo--it would make the most delightful of beach reads. It's warm and lightly satirical and ends, as a great comic novel ought, not entirely predictably but happily.

If the makes it sound like a shallow novel, it's unintentional. The story has two strands: an upcoming election that pits the old guard of cacao planters against a modernizing newcomer from Rio and a love story that revolves around the titular Gabriela and Nacib, bar owner and friend to all. Amado concerns himself with a number of serious topics--the position of women in society, the formation of culture and society, class--while skillfully avoiding didacticism. In fact, such self-importance is cheerful sent up throughout the novel. In one of the most entertaining sequences a self-important poet comes to town to give a lecture that all the book's important characters attend.
Tonico broke the silence:
"Do you know the title of the lecture?"
"No, what is it?"
"Tears and Longing."
"Good title," said Ribeirinho, "We'll be bored to tears and longing to go home."
It's a feeling that Amado's readers (and anyone else who has attended their fair share of lectures) is surely familiar with. And a reminder to be grateful for books like this one, the first goal of which is to entertain.

As much as I enjoyed the book though, Gabriela herself, the object of everyone's desire, full of charm and childish whims, resolutely herself in the face of those who would try to change her, struck me more as a plot construct than a character. She exists, it seems, to illuminate the character of those around her and, at times, to provide a catalyst for events. I found myself entertained by, but not terribly involved in, the romantic thread of the novel and not particularly concerned with what happened to Gabriela. Fortunately, the pleasure I took from reading about the political machinations and the healthy dose of comic relief Amado provided in the form of spinsters and philanderers and lovestruck scholars among others more than compensated for that.

It's a thoroughly winning book. The sort that demands little of the reader and yet pays you back richly for your time and attention and reminds you just what a pleasurable experience reading can be.

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