‘Bad Girl’ slowly lures readers into obsession | AspenTimes.com

‘Bad Girl’ slowly lures readers into obsession

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Weekly

How do you feel about obsession? I’m not asking about the sort of obsession you feel you have toward a favorite sports team, chocolate, or a high school crush. Rather, do you have any sympathy for someone who becomes obsessed with a girl when he’s 16 years old, and lives the next 40 years of his life waiting for the moment when he encounters her again?

There was a time, while reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s newest novel, “The Bad Girl,” that I had no sympathy for protagonist Ricardo Somocurcio at all. Somewhere around the middle of the book I had a quintessential “Stop letting her screw up your life, Ricardo!” moment. I fervently wished that the bad girl, as she is known throughout the book, would stop toying with Ricardo’s heart and either settle down with him, or go away.

But what kind of book would that be?

So the bad girl never truly goes away. As Ricardo fulfills his sole purpose in life ” moving from his native Peru to live the rest of his life in Paris ” she is an ever-present mystery whose intrigue grows with each passing year. Ricardo becomes a translator and then an interpreter, working in the Paris-based UNESCO office, and each time he and readers encounter the bad girl, she has changed her looks, her personality and (most notably) the man she’s with.

She’s infectiously captivating. Around the same time I started to ponder whether she’d ever just go away, one of Ricardo’s friends hears all about her and says in a toast: “To the bad girl, to that fantastic woman! Holy God, what a boring life I’ve had.”

Readers are introduced to Ricardo’s friends with each passing chapter, a cast of quirky characters who are immediately lovable and make his life ” which, let’s face it, can be dull when his only life’s ambition is to live in Paris ” colorful. There’s the obese friend who helps lead a communist movement in Peru; the homeless friend who is transformed by a wealthy woman into a sought-after, high-society painter of equine portraits; and his next-door neighbors, who have adopted a mute boy from Vietnam.

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The bad girl refers to Ricardo as, of course, “the good boy,” and he fills the role perfectly as the mouse that the cat loves to torment. But Ricardo, with his clear, steady voice and detailed descriptions of the characters around him, is also the perfect narrator for this novel. And credit for this certainly goes to Vargas Llosa.

One of Peru’s most celebrated writers, Vargas Llosa also has a deep connection with Peruvian politics; he ran for the presidency of the country in 1990, and was defeated by Alberto Fujimori. He has written a number of novels and nonfiction works that focus on the government in his native land, and the political situation in Peru becomes an interesting side story in “The Bad Girl,” as Ricardo corresponds with relatives in South America.

As Peru changes during his life, Ricardo finds himself feeling like an outsider ” a Peruvian living in Paris, or a Parisian visiting Peru. He lives his life waiting to finally take care of the bad girl, the chameleon he cannot seem to keep up with. By the end of the book, it’s hard to know who to root for ” the bad girl or the good boy. Enjoying this conflict doesn’t make you an indecisive reader, it just makes for a book that draws you in little by little, until you can’t put it down.

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