In praise of the stepmother

by Mario Vargas Llosa

Other authorsHelen Lane (Translator)
Hardcover, 1990

Status

Available

Genres

Collection

Publication

New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1990.

Description

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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member hemlokgang
I read this in one sitting. Llosa offers the reader an erotic, provocative, shocking view of the human spirit. The narration moves from the tale of a man, his second wife and his son to interpretive narration focused on classic works of art. His theme takes the reader deep into the instinctive and sensual part of their being and boldly suggests that it is a fine line between what is a human being's dark side and evil. Where does sensuality become depravity? The references to and interpretations of the classic paintings speak to the timeless nature of our darker yearnings and the dilemmas they create. Do not venture into this one unless or until you prepare for an unsettling read.… (more)
LibraryThing member yonas
This is one of those books that makes you nervous and queesy at the thought of the actual premise -- a woman having sexual relations with her young stepson. But the way in which Vargas Llosa narrates the story grips you from the beginning and wont let you put this book down.
LibraryThing member kant1066
"In Praise of the Stepmother" is a thought-provoking fantasia on innocence, sex, and art which never fails to force us into questioning our most precious of assumptions. Not wishing to have our own little bourgeois moralities threatened is, I suppose, one reason why many people have dismissed this novel as "disgusting" or "immoral" or something equally nonsensical.

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.
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LibraryThing member nosajeel
An odd novella that was not exactly (or even remotely) to my taste, but oddly compelling reading. The story is a love triangle between an older man, his new wife, and the man's young son (exactly how young I hate to imagine). It proceeds in thick, excruciating detail to focus on a few days in their lives, with about one-third of the book devoted the man's nighttime routine, including extremely detailed descriptions of what most politely could be called his toilette. About seven of the chapters center around paintings that are reproduced in the book -- and which are the fulcrum of somewhat bizarre and not overly sexy sexual fantasies. All of which comes to a satisfying conclusion with a twist that retrospectively makes sense of some of the books peculiarities.… (more)
LibraryThing member varwenea
Well, this $2 clearance book is certainly different from my normal repertoire. The story is simple, but the writing/prose is complex. Six pieces of artwork with its own story are interwoven between the chapters; each artwork tale is lightly or directly aligned to the main story. Together they form the most unlikely tale of eroticism that breaches decency. After all, how can the subject of incest and a painting of the annunciation arouse one’s imagination? Perhaps that’s what make this erotica a worthy read despite the subject.

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.”
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LibraryThing member cameling
I wasn't really sure where this book was going when I started reading it. It seemed to focus on the sexual fantasies and activities of Don Rigoberto, collector of erotic paintings and his new and younger wife Lucrecia. The reproduction of some of these paintings in the book provide the theme to some of the stories told and as the book progresses, so do the erotic nature of the paintings.

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.
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LibraryThing member jasonlf
An odd novella that was not exactly (or even remotely) to my taste, but oddly compelling reading. The story is a love triangle between an older man, his new wife, and the man's young son (exactly how young I hate to imagine). It proceeds in thick, excruciating detail to focus on a few days in their lives, with about one-third of the book devoted the man's nighttime routine, including extremely detailed descriptions of what most politely could be called his toilette. About seven of the chapters center around paintings that are reproduced in the book -- and which are the fulcrum of somewhat bizarre and not overly sexy sexual fantasies. All of which comes to a satisfying conclusion with a twist that retrospectively makes sense of some of the books peculiarities.… (more)
LibraryThing member EpicTale
Hmmm...I'll confess that the story's often-scintillating eroticism held my interest. Also, several back stories behind the portrayed artworks struck me as ingenious -- to me, they were the book's best feature.

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?
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LibraryThing member Kichererbse
A wonderfull combination of erotic ideas and art. Little reproductions of the paintings are inside the book. Marvellous!!
LibraryThing member sraimone
Generally, I start reading a book without any idea what it a book, well when I read fiction I guess. I never read the back of the cover, haha, but maybe I should start. I'm not sure what I thought this book would be about, but what it turned out to be was not what I expected. It was a weird book about incest, and strange back stories. I really did not enjoy it. It was work to finish.… (more)
LibraryThing member Myhi
Simply shocking. From a distance, one would think it might be yet another short, easy-to-read love story; it's nothing like that. A perfect family, a succession of happenings and images, a lot of imagination used to build and follow a diabolic plan against the stepmother. And it's all inspired by art... beautiful paintings in a wonderful house, the appearance of innocence - a perfect world. It only becomes real & cruel on the last page... of a 30 pages story. Extremely intense.… (more)
LibraryThing member kwohlrob
A perfect little fable. I read this at a time when memoir fiction was ruling over America. It was splendid to read a book by an author who actually wanted to do more than just lay his past sins out on the page. In Praise of the Stepmother is incredibly inventive in its construction, beautifully written in its prose, and one of those books that just sucks you into its own world.… (more)
LibraryThing member larryking1
So there I was, rushing down the center aisle of my employment [WARNING: name drop alert!] when Candace Bergen steps out in front of me and smiles, "So there you are; I have been looking everywhere for you." That was OK, I guess, as she was quite the beauty, but our doings were always colored by my sense of wonder that she was married to a giant of world cinema, one Louis Malle! And, some years before, he enchanted me and the world with his Murmur of the Heart, a film that had audiences cheering on its hapless teen-aged hero to seduce his step-mother. Now that is what I call 'charm!' But Nobel Laureate, Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa goes Malle one better, because his lead protagonist is even younger, an impish, angelic prepubescent child named Alfonso. And Little A has a carnal fascination so deep-seated toward his lovely step-mom Lucretia that none of us, character or reader alike, know what to make of any of it, especially when the narrative is clouded by befuddled Lima businessman and husband Rigoberto. There is, however, no charm in this misadventure! Proponents of this novel would call it Erotic Fiction, but, for me, we are in the heights of Literary Fiction, in Lolita country so to speak. Nabokov would be proud! And, allow me to add, this is one beautifully written novel, translation or not!… (more)
LibraryThing member Lucy_Skywalker
I didn't suffer this much with any book since Twilight. But now I'm older and wiser and have learnt that we don't have to finish every books we started.

Language

Original language

Spanish

Barcode

1193
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