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By Tuck, Lily
New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 2004
ISBN: 0-06-620944-7
248 pages

Bob Corbett
November 2015

Ella Lynch, a beautiful young Irish woman, lives in Paris and has been the lover of a few different men. She likes the lush life that wealthy men afford her, however, she is, as the novel opens, just ending a relationship with her most recent lover.

She is spotted by a rich young man from Paraguay, Franco Lopez. He pursues her and soon they become lovers, but for her, he is different from the others, and he feels the same way about her. They not only become lovers, but he convinces her to return with him to Paraguay in a more permanent relationship.

Franco’s family is deeply involved and powerful in Paraguayan politics. His father is the reigning president of the country, though the family, while well-known and wealthy, is not among the wealthiest people in Paraguay. His family, with its strong Roman Catholic values cannot accept Ella or the relationship she is having with Franco. However, Franco simply defies them and sets Ella up with a lovely home, even if she is quite distanced from his family socially.

The huge part of the novel is then set in Paraguay. Franco follows his father as the president of Paraguay. He is ambitious, bold, and hot-headed and has a conviction that Paraguay has a great future and that their neighbors, especially Brazil and Argentina are badly mistreating Paraguay. He is determined to assert the “proper role” of Paraguay in South America; at least as he sees it and soon he is at war. Uruguay is also in alliance with Brazil and Argentina.

While the major part of the novel takes places during the years of the war (1864-1870) the novel is not about the war as much as it is about the lives of Franco, Ella and their children and their relationships and hardships with Franco’s family. Nonetheless, the war is a central setting for this fascinating novel.

Franco does set up and Ella and himself with a lovely home in Paraguay’s capitol, Asuncion. The couple is quite fertile and for the first several years Ella has a child nearly every year. They have a daughter who died young as well as a son, but several other sons survived their early childhood, but died of various things during the war.

The war is the setting for most of the novel. However, the story isn’t really as much about the war as it is about the couple, their relationship to his family and their activities and struggles to survive during the war.

Franco became president and had always believed there was destiny for Paraguay to play a much greater role in South American politics that it did, so he had been dreaming of his “turn” soon coming to be president, and how he would show Brazil and Argentina that Paraguay was not just a semi-dependent country, but the one that could emerge as the central power in South America. He couldn’t have been more wrong!

Author Lily Tuck tells the story in a quite unusual structure. There is some sense that is it a linear-time line story of the lives of the family of Franco Lopez, and his driving sense to force the other nations to recognize and respect the place of Paraguay in the region, but the structure is extremely creative and I think quite successful.

The reader is treated to many tiny episodes revealed in short unconnected paragraphs that give glimpses of many different aspects of life, the war, and family struggles. It’s sort of a teasing tactic. Often the reader is presented with several pages where no event described is longer than half a page. This is a very curious style. I’ve never before read a novel written in this manner. It’s actually rather clever and curious. I have very much enjoyed this feature of the book, which, if only for its uniqueness, calls attention to itself. It often seemed like the author had a dozen small incidents that she creates for her central characters, and for the war, as well as in their own personal lives, and just strings them together chronologically to give the reader a profound FELT sense of not only the war, but of their family life and love life. It does remind one somewhat of a diary rather than a typical story in a novel.

I think a further bit of evidence that this is much more the story of the lives and love of Franco, Ella and their family is that it opens in Paris, where they met, and their early love life is there. Then they move to Paraguay where, certainly, the bulk of the novel is set. However, in the end, after Franco is killed, Ella returns to Paris with those sons of hers who survived, and the last years pictured in the novel are of her life in Paris and she struggles, now without the great wealth she had all her life, but just barely getting by on the few things she was able to save from her wealthier days. The essence of the novel, as I saw it, was of a very curious and stormy love story, rather than a war novel of an important, even central family to Paraguay’s history.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett