The Bad Girl was likable enough to finish but not enough to rouse passion—as Orwell wrote, book reviewing demands “[…] constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.” I think of Orwell when reading pieces like this in the New York Times, calling Mario Vargas Llosa’s “[…] most recent book […] a splendid, suspenseful and irresistible novel […]”.
Maybe The Bad Girl is—or maybe the reviewer is unfamiliar with Milan Kundera, who walks similar ground in The Unbearable Lightness of Being with prose that sounds similar in translation, or maybe she found the self-declared investigation of the manifold forms of the bad girl interesting instead of tedious. Llosa’s protagonist-narrator Ricardo lays out the issue early and often: “Everything in the life of Madam Arnoux remain extremely mysterious, as it had been in the lives of Lily the Chilean girl and Arlette the guerilla fighter.” These are all identities assumed by the bad girl, as she is known to Ricardo once he sees through her masks.
Later, we are reminded again by a psychologist who says that “‘Living in the fiction gave [the bad girl] reasons to feel more secure, less threatened than living in the truth.'” Metafictional commentary runs through the novel, as does Ricardo’s hope for requited love from the bad girl who morphs repeatedly, like an alien creature from a pulp science fiction novel that has made Ricardo into her host. As my absurd comments probably show, the novel does not live up to the lavish review—on the Sunday Book Review cover no less. No wonder I heard Orwell in the background, as The Bad Girl looks literary, sounds literary, and seems deserving of praise even if upon finishing it I only thought, “hmmmmm, that was okay.”
Some of the parts that showed panache didn’t lead to a good whole—an old woman is “[…] interested in the world: she read The Times carefully, beginning with the obituaries […]”, telling us where her mind dwells. The author or translator just misses cliche and sums up a side character’s relationship and much of the novel when Ricardo wishes “[…] not to have learned that my friend was going to be brutally awakened from the dream he was in and returned to harsh reality.” Yes: so will Ricardo, we cannot help but think, especially if we already know The Bad Girl draws from Madame Bovary. But we are also treated to a cheap pop psychology scene more disruptive than the last five minutes of the film Psycho, in which a good man of science tells us what happened to the bad girl, solving a small part of Ricardo’s mystery. But so what? It’s an easily skipped scene—I did go back and read it to be sure—and, while the novel packs meaty ideas about illusion, identity, and relationships in, they, like the characters, never come alive. I’d like those ideas to be part of the characters, rather than another form of the alien creature that alters a character’s personality, leaving them a shell instead of a person.
You’ll like it well enough—but why read something that’s good enough instead of what’s excellent? Unless you’re a book reviewer, as Orwell was, you don’t have to.