Despite her international success, the name María Dueñas once might not have triggered even a flicker of recognition among many U.S. readers.
But “The Time in Between,” an adaptation of her mega-best-selling 2009 novel, has turned into a streaming hit on Netflix, introducing a wider audience to the substantial storytelling gifts of this Spanish author and university professor. “The Time in Between” follows the continent-hopping adventures of Sira Quiroga, a naive Madrileña seamstress turned skillful spy who, through a series of misfortunes, finds herself stuck in Morocco around the time of the Spanish Civil War.
Fans of that series, as well as the novel it’s drawn from, will surely enjoy the latest offering from Dueñas, “The Vineyard,” which has been translated into English and is now being released in the United States. In “The Vineyard” (“La Templanza” in the original Spanish edition), Dueñas demonstrates the same breezy and entertaining style she wields to such great effect in her previous works. She is an author who seems to put story first, more interested in delivering a good old-fashioned yarn than in trying to impress you with literary pyrotechnics.
The central figure in “The Vineyard” is Mauro Larrea, a wealthy and ruggedly handsome silver-mining mogul whose Mexican business empire is teetering on the brink of disaster in the early 1860s after he spends a fortune to import new equipment that is never delivered. Larrea, a Spaniard who traveled to the New World to seek riches, spends the first third of the novel, set in and around Mexico City, desperately trying to salvage his business and to maintain appearances as one of the country’s great entrepreneurial successes.
The 47-year-old Larrea is no dandy. He worked humbly in the mines before striking out on his own, and the mangled fingers on one of his hands attest to the dangers and rigors that first awaited him in Mexico. He lives in a grand mansion in Mexico City with a “magnificent enameled bathtub imported from Belgium.” But as he steeps in the warm water contemplating his troubles, he flashes back to his early days in Mexico when “he would wash under a fig tree in a barrel of rainwater.”
Desperate and lacking options, Larrea borrows a large sum from a sepulchral and menacing moneylender and sets off for Havana to scout for a new business that will allow him to not only repay his debt, but also revive his plans to develop the mine of his dreams.
Larrea is so entrenched in Mexican high society that he can’t leave the capital city without two wealthy friends — a countess and the father of his son’s fiancee — stuffing bags of money into his hands for him to invest on their behalf.
Havana turns out to be just a stopping point for Larrea, and for the galloping narrative laid out by Dueñas. Without giving away too much, our hero gets drawn into an all-night billiards match in a brothel with a wealthy Spaniard. Larrea’s opponent lives in Havana and believes Larrea is fooling around with his wife.
For all the testosterone on display, one might think the narrative would be veering into he-man, chest-thumping territory. But Dueñas is better than that. In fact, two of the most compelling characters in “The Vineyard” are women. The first is Carola Gorostiza, a shrewd and formidable daughter of Mexican privilege. The second is Soledad Claydon, an Andalusian whose family once presided over properties that fall into Larrea’s hands.
Dueñas gives some depth to her characters by exploring the notion of national identity, a worthy topic in this era fraught with the immigration debate’s tortured recasting of otherness. The Spaniards whom Larrea encounters in his travels dub him the “Indiano,” a derogatory term meant to lump him with the native Mexicans encountered by Spanish colonialists. On their way to a fancy party, Claydon assures Larrea that the guests are “quite accustomed to putting up with the eccentric behavior of foreigners. And, despite our origins, at this stage in our lives that is what both you and I mainly are.”
At times, the book can be a bit corny, with some slapstick storylines, but it all amounts to good fun. And these days, who couldn’t use a little fun to distract us from the world?
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post features writer and the newspaper’s former Mexico City bureau chief.
By María Dueñas
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García
Atria. 544 pp. $26