Alentejo Blue

by Monica Ali

Hardcover, 2006





New York : Scribner, 2006


This is the story of a village in Portugal, told through the lives of men and women whose families have lived there for generations and some who are passing through. For Teresa, a beautiful girl not yet twenty, Mamarrosa is a place from which to escape. For the dysfunctional Potts family, it is a way of running from trouble. Vasco, a café owner who has never recovered from the death of his American wife, clings to a notion that his years away from the village, in the States, make him superior. One English tourist fantasizes about making a new life here; for her compatriots, a young engaged couple, this is where their dreams fall apart. The village awaits the homecoming of its prodigal son, now a symbol of the fast-changing world. When he finally returns, villagers, tourists, and expatriates are brought together, and their jealousies and disappointments inevitably collide.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member TurboBookSnob
Alentejo Blue is Monica Ali's second novel, and follows Brick Lane, which became an instantaneous publishing sensation, a bestseller and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. While the new novel does not have the bustling, energetic hum of Brick Lane, which was set in London amongst a group of immigrants from Bangladesh , it has its own rhythm – one that is mature and beautiful, poignant and wise.

Perhaps the best way to describe this novel is to consider one of the quotes Ali chooses to place at the beginning of the novel, from Jose Saramago, the esteemed Portuguese novelist:

“Villages are like people, we approach them slowly, a step at a time.”

For this is exactly what Ali does in Alentejo Blue, which is centered around a fictional village in the Alentejo region of Portugal , called Mamarrosa. Each chapter of the novel examines a small group of people who live in, or visit, this village. Ali approaches her characters and the stories of their lives with a slow, steady hand and a surefooted grace. This is a novel that is meant to be savored.

The novel begins with the story of Joao and Rui. Joao finds his old friend, at the age of eighty-four, hanging from a tree. As Joao cuts his friend down and tenderly ministers to him, he recalls their shared past – meeting on a hot and dusty bus headed to a town to find work, sleeping in poverty on the streets, listening to inflammatory oratories shouted out from prison cells, later as old men, playing ball in the park and ribbing one another with ancient jokes and barbs. It is the story of a lifelong friendship, and of a poignant secret love. Their story, with all its tenderness and regret, is easily powerful enough to stand on its own as a short story.

Vasco's café is one of the village of Mamarrosa 's gathering places. Its eponymous owner compulsively wipes the counters and tables with a dirty rag, dreaming of the time he once ventured to America to work in a restaurant. Old men gather by the bar to spin their familiar tales. A young English girl, Ruby Potts, lounges seductively, adolescent in a short skirt and unfortunate hearing aid, trying to maximize her youthful appeal and attract men. Stanton, an English writer, frequents the place and tries hard to avoid staring at Ruby while debating with his plumber, Dieter, about whether he should pay for services rendered if the faucet leaks. It is as if Vasco's Café is a microcosm of the idiosyncrasies of the village of Mamarrosa.

The Potts boy, Ruby's younger brother, Jay, takes to following Stanton around, which is fine with Stanton on days when he isn't inclined to work, but Jay is persistent and becomes such a fixture on Stanton 's doorstep that soon his mother, Chrissie Potts, comes to Stanton 's house to investigate. Stanton is mildly attracted to Chrissie, but it is not until her husband, China Potts, asks to borrow his truck requiring a visit to the Potts house, that Stanton is truly implicated. Stanton helps China pull a dead cow out of a ditch, and afterwards, they repair to the Potts house for beer and conversation of a sort. Chrissie negotiates a solitary walk with Stanton while China and Jay are busy with the goats, and they engage in quick, silent sex against a wall behind the Potts house. After this, Jay and Chrissie compete for Stanton 's attention, and the writer wonders how he will ever finish his book on William Blake.

Eileen is a middle-aged woman from England , visiting Mamarrosa on holiday with her husband, who is the sort of man who admonishes her to practice rationality and reason and questions her sanity habitually as a way of making himself feel better about the world. She wants to soak up the local color and appreciate the quiet beauty of everyday things, while he frets that they aren't actually “doing anything” on their trip.

Teresa is a young woman, blooming with the endless possibilities of youth, who has grown up in Mamarrosa. She works in a shop, and is courted by a boy from the village, Antonio. On the surface, her life appears to be following the same basic plan that villagers from Mamarrosa have followed for centuries. Underneath the surface, however, she is harboring an exciting secret – she has been accepted as a nanny for a family from London , and soon the world will be at her beck and call. The quiet village life is not for her. She will leave her mother and Antonio behind while she seeks out the life she was truly meant to have.

The lives of these and other characters in Alentejo Blue intertwine. Everything comes to a head with the opening of the new Internet café, and with the Mamarrosa festa, held annually in November. Both events pit Marco, a villager who has long since left Mamarrosa behind, and the cousin of Eduardo, who owns the Internet café, against the habits and attitudes of the villagers who have remained behind. It is with this juxtaposition that Ali shows that in small villages all over the globe, to use a trite but true phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Monica Ali is a beautiful writer, and it is evident in this novel that she has drawn her characters with tender precision. She has lovingly crafted each of their stories vividly – the reader is able to experience Mamarrosa with all the senses, to truly imagine what life there would be like. It is a wonderful achievement, and a very worthy companion to Brick Lane.
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LibraryThing member Zmrzlina
The writing is often beautiful and the individual vignettes are usually quite striking, however the ending is a forced linkage of disparate lives. Perhaps I missed some common thread, other than the location.

Of all the stories, Vasco's is the most beautiful, and most painful.
LibraryThing member Ebba
A novel about different people living in or visiting a small village in Portugal. Little snapshots of ordinary lives which I enjoyed. I had hoped for a better feeling of the Portuguese people and a little bit less of English tourists and expats.
LibraryThing member writestuff
Monica Ali's novella - Alentejo Blue - is a collection of moments lived by its vast array of characters. The Alentejo region of Portugal -located in south-central Portugal and known for its tiny, medieval villages - is the perfect setting for Ali's book, which seems to be a collection of interconnected, short stories. Ali is adept at exploring her characters' inner lives. The reader is gradually introduced to the inhabitants of the fictional town of Mamarrosa: Joao, an old timer who has seen the days of Communism and remembers the revolution of the peasants; Vasco, the baker whose obesity and compulsion with eating hides his painful losses; Teresa, a young woman who longs to break away from the village of her birth; Sophie and Huw, an engaged couple whose holiday to Portugal uncovers the deeper issues of their relationship; Elaine, a middle-aged English woman seeking meaning in her tired marriage; Stanton, the alcoholic writer living a shallow existence; and the Potts family, living a dysfunctional existence far from their home in England. As the novella unwinds, the reader glimpses the connections between characters and the main themes evolve.

There is a theme of "old" world vs. "new" - highlighted by the elderly, traditional members of the village vs. the youth and tourists. Change is in the air, but it is unclear whether it will be for the best, or will simply disrupt the flow of village life.

Ali's lyrical prose transports the reader into the countryside of Portugal.

'The plains spread out on either side. Here and there a cork oak stood grieving. The land rose and fell in modest dimensions. Now and again a gleam of machinery, glittering drops of water on an acacia, a giant eucalyptus shedding its splintery scrolls. Field upon field upon field, wheat and grass and fallow, on and on and on, and in this flat composition there was a depth, both sadness and tremulous joy.' -From Alentejo Blue, page 163-

This novel was listed as a 2006 New York Times Most Notable book - and I think it is deserving of that honor. Ali is a gifted writer with great understanding and sensitivity to her characters - picking up Alentejo Blue was like relaxing into small town life, chatting with the neighbors and observing the ebb and flow of the days beneath a Portugal sun. I will be reading more of Ali's novels in the future.

Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5
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LibraryThing member kevinashley
A satisfying, poignant if somewhat melancholy read. It's not so much about something as a portrait of a place, a time and feelings without a strong story arc. It has been described as a set of short stories with a shared setting rather than a novel, and that's not a totally unfair description. I've seen a lot of very negative reviews of this work, many comparing it unfavourably with Brick Lane. It's certainly a very different book, and it doesn't have the urgency or the highs and lows of Brick Lane. But I think the unflattering comparisons are unfair. I'm glad I read this book, but I can see that not everyone that liked Brick Lane will like it.… (more)
LibraryThing member paperback
It's a long way from Brick Lane, East London to Alentejo, Southern Portugal but I found the journey surprisingly comfortable. Monica Ali has set a tone for her imaginary Alentejo which is claustrophobic and banal and the repetitive rhythms of her prose successfully evoke the lifestyles (chosen or otherwise) of her characters. It remains to be seen if this novel is a change of direction or a detour, but it's certainly not "Brick Lane 2: The Re-tread" - Thank goodness!… (more)
LibraryThing member AJBraithwaite
Portraits of a series of characters who are visiting or living in a Portuguese village. Not an awful lot happens but the portraits are convincingly drawn and the interactions between the various characters are life-like. Will now go ahead and read Brick Lane, which over-hypedness had put me off from doing before.
LibraryThing member jaipur1
A fairly pleasant book to read, but ultimately frustrating as it doesn't really go anywhere.
LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Well Written 2nd novel by the author of Brick Lane. Various intersecting stories from locals as well as vacationers all involved in this small town in Portugal. The seemingly separate pieces come together in the end. The language of the novel is possibly the highlight.
Amazon summary:
Monica Ali's second book is a collection of stories set in the Alentejo province of Portugal, linked by characters and by a vivid sense of place and time.
Teresa is a beautiful young girl from the village who is supposed to marry a suitable man from the same community but who wants to see the world. Vasco is a café owner who is losing business to the new internet café down the road. The unseemly, dysfunctional, but strangely riveting Potts are a family of ex-patriots, trying to cobble a life together, at odds with one another until they run into trouble on the outside. We also meet several English tourists: a young couple engaged to be married and confronting each others weaknesses and idiosyncrasies for the first time, and an older woman imagining a new life, fantasizing about never returning home.

I enjoyed the language of what is certainly a talent for years to come. There is a scene involving the towing of a cow that I will not quickly forget.
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LibraryThing member Tinwara
A nice and easy read, which I would recommend to those travelling to southern Portugal and planning on visiting some villages there. The book is set in a village, Mamarrosa (don't go searching, it's fictional), in the Alentejo province. The chapters are like short stories. Each has a different person as a central character: locals, tourists, expats. Old and young, male and female. Together the stories are as a mosaic of village life.

What I liked about the book are the descriptions of the village, the local pub, the little shop, the gossip, the old men hanging around. It seemed realistic to me as a tourist. But then again, it would be interesting to know what a Portuguese villager would think of that!

Having said that, this is definitely no great work of literature, and it didn't really touch me or inspire me.
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LibraryThing member jayne_charles
Delighted to find this in the second-hand shop, having really enjoyed Brick Lane. This is more varied, following the various inhabitants of a small community in Portugal - Portuguese and ex-pat. Unfortunately it's harder work to read - some of the chapters were so opaque I still haven't got a clue what was going on. Others featured characters drawn with such skill and wit (the Potts family, particularly, the worst types of ex-pat all rolled into one squalid mass) that it was a shame to have to leave them to move on to someone else. Having finished the book I'm not really left with a feeling of wholeness or a central message. It read like a series of short stories only loosely connected - a bit like Trainspotting but not as funny.… (more)
LibraryThing member Clara53
Very skillfully written. Mature writing that one expects from a seasoned author - so it comes as a surprise to see a relatively young one to achieve such level (Ms. Ali was not even 40 when this book was published). It's a story of a remote village in Portugal, its residents, some expats that live there, and some tourists passing by. Each chapter is devoted to one of them or a couple, and the insight into their idiosyncrasies and quirks is amazing. Along with fiction characters, there is a sprinkling of Portugal's history as well. Plus a revelation for me - Alentejo region of Portugal has the world's greatest plantations of cork trees. This is my 3rd book by Monica Ali (the other two being "Brick Lane" and "In the Kitchen"), and I must say, the author's versatility, knowledge of the subject at hand, as well as unique style in each of the novels made quite an impression.… (more)
LibraryThing member icolford
Monica Ali's touch is subtle in this portrait of a small Portuguese community where jealousy, envy, and an abundance of petty resentments, follies and vices afflict natives and visitors alike. Ali's talent lies in her ability to get inside the heads of a cast of dissimilar characters--young, old, male, female, Portuguese, English--and convincingly depict their hopes and dreams, passions and obsessions. Unfortunately the story is somewhat less than totally engaging. Some of the characters never fully emerge from the shadows and their motives remain obscure. But Ali's exquisite prose is always readable and leavened by welcome touches of humor.… (more)
LibraryThing member seraph56
An intriguing exploration of a small community and the passers through in a rural Portugese village. Characters are carefully given their own narrative which is finally woven in to the final scenes. Excellent read.
LibraryThing member birdy47
Quite enjoyed this. Lighter and fluffier than Brick Lane.


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