South American Dreamers

Part sudser for the Danielle Steel set and intellectual bait for Latin American studies majors, Carolina de Robertis’ novel The Invisible Mountain is a dazzling debut.

Admit it: If I told you that this debut novel about 20th-century Uruguay was an heir to the political, magical realism novels that came out of Latin America in the ‘70s and ‘80s, your eyes would soon glaze over. Sure, that would mean it was “important,” and probably subversive and oh-so-literary; you might feel you had to buy it, or “know about it” but you surely wouldn’t look forward to enjoying reading it. On the other hand, if I said The Invisible Mountain was a tale of three generations of women who marry, fall in love (not necessarily in that order), and search for and find themselves in the lush, dramatic lands of South America, you might turn your nose up, thinking it commercial junk.

Careful readers might understand why her love for Andres is impossible, long before she does; when the two meet up years later, even a cynic can’t help but be satisfied by their relationship’s resolution.

But what if I tell you that this delightful debut is both of the above?

Part sudser for the Danielle Steel set, and part sociopolitical education for the Latin American studies majors (of which I was once one), The Invisible Mountain is that rare breed: a smart commercial “woman’s book” that might indeed cross over that commercial literary line. (The magical realism is, blessedly, minimal.) Written in three sections, each belonging to a woman, it recounts the tale of the Firielli family: Italian immigrant Ignazio Firielli arrives in Montevideo, in search of work and a better life. He meets and marries a simple Uruguayan woman with whom he raises several children, including a daughter, Eva, a “good girl” who just happens to be gorgeous (read: victimized by men) and an aspiring poet. Eventually, she flees to Buenos Aires. Eva then marries a proper doctor, but her poetic and romantic nature finally fells the marriage, when she collaborates with a Peron resister. Her daughter, Salome, however, takes her mother’s views even further, ending up in a Uruguayan prison for her revolutionary ways.

I know. It sounds hokey—and it would be, except that de Robertis, who was raised in Europe and the U.S. but is the daughter of Uruguayan parents, knows how to spin a tale and how to couch melodrama in the details of time and place. She also knows how to give readers enough of what they know—the Argentina sections will be familiar and comfortable to anyone who’s heard of Eva Perón—to make them interested in learning more. (Uruguayan politics? Even Latin American studies majors were never taught much about that!) And the characters, while symbolic, never descend into the kind of cardboard cutouts that often peoples dynastic family novels; Eva, particularly compelling, is really the heart of the book, attempting as she does to bridge the world between her peasant mother and her rebel daughter, while still retaining her own iconoclastic worldview. (Never mind that careful readers might understand why her love for Andres is impossible, long before she does; when the two meet up years later, even a cynic can’t help but be satisfied by their relationship’s resolution.) Like recent novels that blend the historical with the human, the personal with the political—I’m thinking of Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, for example— The Invisible Mountain has something for everyone who’s ever been a mother, a daughter, or a student, not necessarily of Latin America, but of life.

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Sara Nelson is a critic for The Daily Beast and the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. She is the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.