Translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman
Do you believe in endless, unconditional love? The answer to this question is likely to shape one’s opinion of The Bad Girl.
Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian Nobel Prize winner in literature. His most famous books include Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and the War of the End of the World. He is an exciting multi-talent, moving between journalism, writing, politics and lecturing. These multiple roles are also reflected in his writing, which give intelligent and real accounts of society and current affairs.
The Bad Girl extends over decades, covering the lifetime of Ricardo Somocurcio. Starting in the 1950s, when fifteen-year-old Ricardo meets the love of his life, Lily, in Miraflores in Lima, Peru. However, Lily quickly disappears when it becomes evident that she has been lying about her nationality and background. In his twenties, Ricardo moves to Paris, where he works as an interpreter and translator. Again, he meets Lily, who this time goes under the name ‘Comrade Arlette’, a trainee revolutionary. Ricardo falls in love with her again, but once more she disappears following a short romance. She later remerges as the wife of a French diplomat, then as the wife of a rich horse trader in Newmarket, London, and later on as the wife of a Japanese businessman. She is constantly on the hunt for material improvement, and men are the tool she uses to get this. Ricardo, with his modest income from working as an interpreter and translator, is unable to win her over, but through his job, he manages to arrange to attend conferences where Lily currently lives. This way, their romance stretches over a number of different contexts and time periods.
It is a book for the hopelessly romantic, for those who believe that the concept of ‘the one’ is actually real, for those who dream of experiencing true and endless love. I remember when I first read this book, in my early 20s, single, and on my way to Uganda. Full of dreams and new impressions, this book managed to make a real impact in me, as I smiled, cried and loved with Ricardo. As soon as the book finished, I went straight to the first page and read the whole story over again.
For the rest, it might be too much. This is probably also why the book got a number of poor reviews when first published.
A review in the Guardian said it was full of cliches and unconvincing. There might be some truth to that; Lily is not a very charming character, with the exception of her beauty. She is overtly materialistic, sacrificing her body and her life to advance her social standing. It is difficult to understand what she wants in life, and probably she doesn’t even know that herself. Still, she is a character that makes the reader ask themselves important existential questions about the times we live in, and what constitutes happiness in our capitalistic societies.
Ricardo might also be a tough character to understand; a simple man, living an ordinary life, with the exception of his crazy love for Lily, which makes him sacrifice everything for her. Compared to Lily, he is happy where he is, having fulfilled his childhood dream of living in Paris and working with languages. The only thing missing is the love of his life. Again, some questions come to mind. What is a happy life, is it better to be happy with what you have and the small things in life, or should you pursue more, like Lily? In the end, he is the one who is rewarded, whilst her life goes downhill, but this can probably be interpreted in many different ways.
In the end, your reading experience is likely to depend on whether you believe such love exists, and with that, if you also find these characters and their emotions credible. Nevertheless, the book is worth reading not only for the love story, but also for Vargas Llosa’s depiction of life and society, in Peru and Europe, from the 1950s to the present.