From Publishers Weekly
How crazy was Juana La Loca, the Spanish queen who allegedly would not stop kissing her husband, Philippe the Handsome, even after he died? A Madrid professor enlists the help of a student and a silk dress to find out in the latest from Nicaraguan poet-memoirist-novelist Belli (The Country Under My Skin). While touring the Escorial, 17-year-old Lucia, a Latin American–born orphan attending a Madrid Catholic boarding school, meets Manuel, a 40-something professor who draws Lucia into his obsession with 16th-century Juana. Soon, Manuel dresses Lucia like Juana, and, as he seduces (and eventually impregnates) her, she channels Juana’s spirit, allowing Belli to create—in sensuous detail—a turbulent, emotion-driven version of events that is at odds with historians’ accounts of Juana’s schizophrenia. Juana, as Belli depicts her, was a passionate woman who fell victim to power-hungry relatives, and whose eccentric behavior may have been symptoms of bipolar disorder. (As Belli explains in an author’s note, “any woman with a strong sense of self, confronted by the abuse and the arbitrary injustices she had to withstand, forced to accept her powerlessness in the face of an authoritarian system, would become depressed.”) Belli’s insights into Spanish culture prove provocative, aided by Dillman’s faultless translation. (Sept.)
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Belli’s rigorously imagined and sumptuously presented novel is a dual story of obsessive love, with a bi-level plot alternating between past and present. From the past, the author retrieves the almost legendary tale of Queen Juana of Castile, eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and her alleged madness caused by the premature death of her handsome husband, Philip of Hapsburg. The contemporary story line is also set in Spain; over a period of time and in piecemeal fashion, a teenage student in a convent school, Lucia by name, learns from a college professor, who will become her first lover, of his own obsession: Queen Juana and her life story, specifically the unanswerable question of whether she was insane or simply the victim of a smear campaign by the male forces at court who would seek to control her. The professor, as if Scheherazade, tells Lucia a series of episodes concerning the tragic queen so Lucia may internalize Juana’s plight, all the while executing his seduction of her. Male manipulation of the female, as we see, is hardly a thing of the past. A balance between the two time levels is carefully maintained, the contemporary story intensifying the viability of the characters from the past–all this carried along, as if down a lovely stream, by the sheer beauty of the author’s prose style. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved –This text refers to the Paperback edition.