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The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis

book cover of The Gods of Tango

I’ve read both of de Robertis’ previous novels, The Invisible Mountain and Perla. I adored them both. These tales of dictatorships and strong, decisive women have stuck in my heart for years now. I was disappointed that I did not enjoy The Gods of Tango the same way. I think primarily, it was a case of my expectations being too high – this was still a good book, and dealt with a theme I find interesting (namely, women in history refusing to comply with the norms forced on them by virtue of their sex)… it just didn’t meet the dizzying heights of the others.

So. This novel tells the story of Dante, who starts out as Leda, a seventeen-year-old widow who’s just travelled across the seas from small-town Italy to Buenos Aires to be with her cousin-husband, only to discover he’d been shot dead at a protest just before her arrival. This poses a problem, since for a single, working-class woman in 1910s Buenos Aires, there is no way to keep oneself afloat besides prostitution, a fate Leda naturally wishes to avoid.

So she reinvents herself. She takes a violin she brought over from Italy and her husband’s clothes, and becomes Dante. Through persistence and a highly fortunate prodigious talent for the violin, she joins a tango orquesta and earns a living as a professional musician. She quickly adjusts to the masculine world, one of boozing, smoking and whoring. She finds other women alluring, irresistible, but is distressed by her inability to truly be intimate with them, seeing as she can&squo;t ever risk her secret being exposed. At last, she meets another woman, one who found a different way of transgressing those feminine gender norms, and they share a happily ever after together.

Put like that, I very much enjoyed this story. On the other hand, the plot moved very slowly (and the entire first half held nothing that you didn’t already know from the blurb, which seemed like a poor choice on the publisher’s part) and the characters were less than strongly portrayed. At times I felt like the author got too caught up in her beautiful melodic prose (and really, it is lovely) and forgot to ensure the plot was rock-solid. There were a couple of sections where she switched to the point of view of another character, not Leda/Dante, when that wasn’t really necessary. There was a fairly prominent subplot that ultimately proved pointless (all we learned was that sometimes girls are raped by their fathers… was that necessary?). The ending seemed to move a bit too quickly, and be a bit too neat. I felt that Leda/Dante herself was a bit of a cipher, someone who adapted her entire being to her circumstances rather than having a strong core identity of her own… which was, perhaps, the point, but I found it somewhat unsatisfying.

Overall, I’d call this a worthwhile read if the themes or setting particularly interest you, but the story itself seems a bit on the weak side. A solid three-star book.

★★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.