Author: María Dueñas
Translator: David Hahn
Publisher: Atria Books, 2011
Hardcover, 624 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
First Line: A typewriter shattered my destiny.
Sira Quiroga is the daughter of a humble seamstress in Madrid, Spain. From sweeping floors and running errands, Sira grows into an apprenticeship. By the time she's twenty, she's learned her trade and is looking forward to marriage to a government clerk. However, she hasn't learned to resist charismatic men. The father she never knew and a handsome salesman turn her world upside down.
Abandoned in Morocco by the man she loves, the only way Sira can survive is by using her needle. Through hours of hard work and determination, she becomes a respected modiste in Morocco. Catering to the collection of European expatriates trapped there by the war in Spain and the worsening political situation in the rest of Europe lays the groundwork for the next stage in Sira's life. She returns to Madrid, opens an exclusive couturier for Nazi officers' wives, and becomes an undercover agent for the Allies.
This was a very uneven reading experience for me. Its length (624 pages) is not for the weak of heart (or for those with weak wrists). If a story holds my interest, I don't care how long the book is, but this one only held it sporadically.
In many ways, I enjoyed the first section of the book the most. My interest was fully engaged as I learned how Sira grew up, how she fell in love, and how she had to fight hard to make a living after being abandoned in Morocco. The reader's opinion of Sira will make or break this book since she is the narrator. At times I found that her naivete and impulsiveness made me want to slap some sense into her. However, she is honest about how she abandoned a good man for a bad one, and her friendships with Rosalinda and Candelaria as well as her descriptions of starting out in business definitely strengthen the narrative.
But Sira tells us something very important: she is carefully picking and choosing each fact in her story. Some of her choices weaken the book for me. When she becomes couturier for the Nazi officers' wives, it is a case of too much reporting and not enough doing. We're told more about the days the coded messages are delivered and very little about how the information was gathered. It would have added so much to the story to have a scene at the shop when the wives were gathered, relaxed and being served tea, gossiping away, with Sira working-- and listening-- diligently. I wanted to see it happen, not be told about it later.
It also came to the point where the political segments made my eyes glaze over. Sira purposely avoided many areas of Madrid because she didn't want to see what had happened to the city of her birth. There was too much in this book that Sira didn't wish to see, and I didn't appreciate being forced to wear blinders. Moreover, it felt as though Sira kept me at a distance-- as if she didn't really trust me. Granted, being a spy would make a person extremely distrustful, but when that spy is the narrator of a huge novel, distancing the reader can be very off-putting.
When all is said and done, your reaction to the main character of this sweeping historical novel will determine how much you enjoy it. I found much in the book to admire, but in the end, I felt as though Sira had led me down the garden path.