In Praise of the Stepmother is the story of Don Rigoberto, his second wife, Lucrecia, and his son, Alfonso. Their family life together seems to be a happy one. Rigoberto, an insurance company manager, spends his time preening himself for his wife and collecting erotic art. But while Lucrecia is devoted to him, she has her own needs, and soon finds herself the object of young Alfonso's attention. With meticulous observation and seductive skill, Mario Vargas Llosa explores the mysterious nature of happiness. Little by little, the harmony of his characters is darkened by the shadow of perversion. If you enjoyed In Praise of the Stepmother, you might also like Mario Vargas Llosa's The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto.
At its core rests a simple story. After a failed marriage with his young son Alfonso's mother, Don Rigoberto marries Dona Lucrecia, a woman whom he truly adores and is certainly erotically infatuated with. On the first page of the novel, Alfonso, a boy of ten or twelve, leaves a note on his stepmother's pillow congratulating her on her fortieth birthday, and saying that he will do his best to become first in his class to reward her. This is the inaugurating move in a cat-and-mouse game that drives the entire novel forward in a series of events that reaches its apex in a lurid sexual encounter between Alfonso and Lucrecia which occurs while Rigoberto is on a business trip. She does not deliberately set out to do this, yet still has found herself titillated by the occasional fugitive thought of her and her stepson in coitus. At the very end of the novel, we find out that Alfonso wrote an essay for school in which he details his erotic relationship with his mother and, to make matters worse, read it to his father. Why? We don't know. In the last pages of the book, the housekeeper asks Alfonso why he would do such an insidious thing to the stepmother he loved so much, to which he replies, "I did it for you," seemingly setting the entire wheel rolling toward tragedy and destruction once more.
Vargas Llosa artfully interlards the worlds of the erotic and sensual (the lovemaking of Lucrecia and Rigoberto) with Rigoberto's mundane daily ablutions - the trimming of his nose hairs, the application of cologne to his body, the special care that he gives his feet and hands. This spiritual aubade to the body, which apparently bored so many readers, is what drew me in and made turned the reading into an almost ecstatic experience. This was only heightened by the six exquisite colored plates that are placed in the novel to accentuate themes in the story.
Alfonso's duplicity (or was it duplicity after all?) asks, as Slavoj Zizek has done by other means, "Isn't love the ultimate act of violence?" After this novel, it is impossible not to see the ulterior and tenebrous underbelly of the most innocent of gestures. Whose desire is outlawed, Lucrecia's or the boy's? Can Don Rigoberto somehow turn outside that scrutiny to which he so easily applies to himself in his daily bath in order to answer what has happened under his roof? Some of these questions are never answered, but the way Vargas Llosa asks them makes reconciling one's self to the novel and its moral imperatives deliciously fun.
The 40-year-old Dona Lucrecia had married the widower, Don Rigoberto, who has a stepson, Fonchito, whose face is as angelic as a cherub. Fonchito is physically affectionate towards his new stepmother to a magnitude that stirs her insides. Meanwhile, her lovemaking with her husband is a nightly ritual and legend not to be missed. Though Fonchito’s boyhood age was never mentioned, his seductions (with a threat of suicide) are eventually successful resulting in an expected love triangle, which of course, doesn’t end well. It’s not difficult to guess who is the true “evil-doer” behind this mess.
The curiosity of this book lays with the artistry of the prose. The basics of a human being is amplified – from the love-making, and more importantly, the arousals leading to the love making, to Don Rigoberto’s nightly primping making himself presentable to his lovely Lucrecia. A full chapter is devoted to his defecation, feet and armpit cleaning, that ends with him admiring his own unicorn. He is a different kind of metro-sexual, entirely devoted to Lucrecia. Each art is enveloped in an imaginative story. The best of which is Llosa’s interpretation of “Diana at the Bath” by Boucher. Diana had hunted, bathed, and being tended to by her favorite, Justinianna, who will pleasure her, make love to her, suck her toes, all while an unseen goatherd lusts for them. Get the idea?
At times, the naughty theme made my cheeks turned toasty. “…you were blind and on your knees between my thighs, kindling my fires like a groveling, diligent servant.” At other times, it made me smile: “Making an intense intellectual effort – to recite aloud the Pythagorean theorem – Don Rigoberto halted halfway in its course the erection that was beginning to bare it amorous little head, and splashing it with handfuls of cold water, he calmed it down and returned it, shy and shrunken, to its discreet foreskin cocoon.” And the incest was cringe worthy, “Only a moment before, he had been a youth without scruples, of unerring instinct, riding her like an expert horseman.”
Though the book is likely not for everyone, this quote makes the book complete for me. We all need happiness.
“The bliss he had found in his solitary hygienic practices and, above all, in the love of his wife appeared to him to be sufficient compensation for his normalcy. Having this, what need was there to be rich, famous, eccentric, a genius? The modest obscurity that his life represented in the eyes of others, that routine existence as the general manager of an insurance company, concealed something which, he was sure, few of his fellows enjoyed or even suspect existed: possible happiness.”
But Don Rigoberto has a son, Alfonso, an angelic looking cherub, affectionate and seemingly guileless. All he wants is the love of his stepmother and Lucrecia finds herself torn between the love she feels for the boy and how she thinks she ought to treat him.
The events in the final chapters changed my view of the characters and the events that had taken place in the preceding chapters. The genius of Llosa is highlighted in the way he exposes the darker motivation behind the actions taken by his characters.
It wasn't a book I was entranced with at the beginning, but I was wowed by the time I arrived at the last page.
But, overall, I was left wondering what points the author wanted to make, and also why he felt the story was worth publishing. Stylistically and conceptually, the story left me feeling underwhelmed -- I had expected more substance from the work of a Nobel laureate.
If I had read another of the author's books, would I have gathered a better first impression of Llosa? If so, which one?