Julia Amante’s novel, Nights At The Argentine Club, will probably be unpopular in Mauritania where large women are so valued some families confine their marriageable daughters and stuff them with food as French farmers in Perigord do with geese. Readers who equate fat with disfigurement will better appreciate the travails of Victoria Torres, Amante’s main character. Victoria is Argentinian-American, fifty pounds overweight, unmarried, and living at home with her downtrodden mother and overbearing father. As so many mass market chic lit writers do, Amante follows the formula according to which fiction writers must whittle down female characters’ size before the last chapter. Predictably, Victoria sheds her excess poundage, gets out from under her father’s thumb, starts the career of her dreams, and has a steamy romance with Eric, an amazing–Amante seems fond of that word–Argentinian-American guy.
The steamy romance scenes are cringe inducing,
..You’re gorgeous, Victoria,”
“Let’s take these costumes off,” she said, “But we’re supposed to be dating before…”
“I don’t give a shit about those dates.”
“Oh Eric,” she moaned.”
”Man. Victoria. Oh man. You’re beautiful” Jane Austen it isn’t.
Readers who cherish a well-plotted, unusual story whose vivid characters move gracefully in a well-crafted plot will have to look elsewhere. Try as I might, I could not summon any enthusiasm for Victoria’s angst. She believes that her size keeps her from having a love life. That should give pause to the majority of American women. According to 2007 stats on USA.gov they make up over 60 percent of the female population of the United States. Since zero population growth has yet to become a reality in the US, some of these women apparently have a love life. But this is a small quibble. My main problem with Amante is that not only is her writing redundant, trite and clunky, but that her characters are shallow, and her plot simplistic.
“…he wasn’t satisfied with a satisfactory life…”, “he didn’t make the kind of money he made by taking stupid risks.”, “she shopped at Nordstrom..”. “, “Jacqueline checked her vintage Omega gold watch…” “Unlike the changes to the interior of the rest of the house, the kitchen remained the same.” In four short months, Mami cures her empty nest syndrome with the internet, a few self-help books and a cruise. Papi morphs into a sensitive man. Mama Ortelli stops smothering her son Eric, her bumbling husband stops being a bumbler, and their son, the previously rootless stud muffin becomes a gung-ho supporter of Argentinian values, whatever they are.
Am I giving too much of the story away? Hardly. This stuff is as predictable as a Dr. Phil script.
Victoria’s rapid transformation requires the reader to do more than suspend her disbelief; it requires a frontal lobotomy. Throughout the story, there are strange disconnects. Ultra traditional papi, who has been known to threaten Victoria’s beaux with bodily harm, turns a blind eye to mami’s friendship with a flirtatious Mexican man. Approval seeking Victoria, who will not wear a revealing dress to the club lest she invite criticism, suddenly throws propriety out the window, moves in a man, learns to swing a sledge-hammer, and marvel of marvels, she learns to places her career above her family and above the the stud muffin’s charms.
That Papi is from Mars and mami is from Venus makes sense, whatever their culture. That he is a workaholic and she is an empty nester groping for the meaning of life is common to many cultures. That the stud muffin stops dithering about what it being an Argentinian means and becomes a supporter of Argentinian culture is possible That all this happens in four months, is in Nights At The Argentinian Club-speak, bull crap.
Am I being to hard on Amante, especially when this is her first novel? I do not think so. Disappointment entitles the reader to a share of annoyance. I was not expecting Turgenev, mind you, I thought that Amante would do as good a job portraying the inter-generational conflict between Argentinian immigrants and their American children as Amy Tan did with Chinese parents and their children in The Joy Luck Club.
She dies a decent job of explaining how to use an old camera, she inserts plenty of details about . the real estate market and interior decorating, but she fails as a story-teller when she does not make clear the cause of the conflict between Victoria and her parents, Eric and his. Presumably, cultural differences are at the heart of the conflict. But why? What exactly is Argentinian culture? “Tango and beef, “ says papi, diplomatically leaving out Peronismo. How does this conflict differ from the one that separates the younger generation of Ukrainian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Italian-Americans? Surely Amante does not expect readers to believe that except for a group of insular Argentinians living in California, the population of the entire United States is a homogeneous blob.
Are Argentinians a homogeneous blob? Do Catholic Italian-Argentinians in the pampas share the same cultural values as urban Lutheran German-Jewish Argentinians? Do German-Jewish Argentinians share the values of the descendants of the German Nazi who settled in Argentina? Do Russian-Argentinian Mennonites? Try as I might, I cannot find the answer to my questions in this book. I infer that the elder immigrants come from a patriarchal society, that they value good manners, that they love grilled beef, empanadas and dulce de leche, that they want they children to live at home until they get married—so do many Brazilians, Bolivians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and some non-hyphenated Americans.
Ultimately, Amante is unable to turn the stories of ordinary people into “unforgettable encounters.” She fails to do what Chekhov advised, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Lisa See did exactly that in “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”Lisa see did exactly that in Gold Mountain, her book about her Chinese family. Jamaica Kinkaid did the same in My Brother, and so did Khaled Husseini in The Kite Runner. If you like novels crammed with platitudes such as, “Love should be perfect. It’s hard to let go. You only get one life,” this book is for you. However, if most of you have higher literary standards, this book is likely to bomb in more places than Mauritania