Coming Apart at the Seams

I came home from work a couple of months ago to find a book waiting for me, a fairly common occurrence around my neck of the woods.  However, this particular incident was a little out of the ordinary as it was a book I’d never heard of and had not asked for (even my wife looked a little confused).  Could it be…  Yes, on this day, I had received one of those mythical items, an unrequested advance review copy, a sign that I too had ascended to the next circle of bloggerdom, become one of the chosen…

The book in question was María Dueñas’ The Seamstress (also known as The Time In Between), a best-selling Spanish novel of a woman caught up in political intrigue during the Spanish Civil War and World War II.  I was a little hesitant to read it at first, despite its being a translated work, as I suspected that it might be chick-lit in disguise (the cover certainly didn’t convince me that it would be one I’d enjoy…).  However, in the idea of trying new things, and with a month of reading books by female writers in full swing, I decided to give it a go 🙂

The Seamstress, translated by Daniel Hahn (although you have to look pretty hard to find his name…), is written around Sira Quiroga, a young dressmaker living in Madrid, who abandons her ordinary life (and her very ordinary fiancé) to run off with a smooth-talking salesman.  Having been abandoned by her lover in Tangiers, she moves on to Tetouan (in the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco), where she is forced to work hard to pay off debts incurred by her horrible ex.

There she makes the acquaintance of Rosalinda Fox, an English woman who wants help making a fabulous dress at very short notice.  She needs it to wear to a function, on the arm of her lover – a high-ranking Nationalist official.  This chance meeting is the start of Sira’s life of political intrigue…

Let me make something clear right from the start – this is not one of my usual literary tomes.  Unfortunately, my first impressions were largely justified, and I spent most of the novel picking faults in Dueñas’ style, thinking about how this could have been a better book.  The major issue is that the writer is too eager to tell the story to let the story actually be told.  A good story unfolds at its own pace, unhurried by the writer’s intentions, but Dueñas seems to be pushing The Seamstress along as if she has somewhere to be, and that’s quite a feat in a book that runs to more than 600 pages (of admittedly large type).  In better hands, this could have been a trilogy of literary tales rather than one plumped-up page turner.

Another worrying problem is the characterisation.  The Seamstress is full of two-dimensional, stereotyped supporting players: the educated, possibly gay neighbour; the suave, roguish, seductive lover who abandons Sira; the buxom, matronly housekeeper (and smuggler!) who takes Sira under her wing in Tetouan.  Every time the reader is introduced to someone new, Sira gives us just enough details to let us know what kind of person it is before the plot continues on its merry way.  Sadly, it’s not enough to make us care about any of them a great deal.

I would also argue that the choice of a first-person narrator is a fairly limiting one, forcing the author to resort to a long sequence of monologues, interrupted by the occasional conversation.  In one instance, Dueñas obviously realises that this is insufficient, and the chapter moves away from Sira and describes life in Madrid for Rosalinda and her beau.  In the final paragraphs of the chapter, we find out how this is done; it’s all information Sira has gathered from letters – how convenient…

There are several more issues I had with The Seamstress, but to simply list them here would be overkill, and slightly unfair.  You see, for all the problems I had with the book, I did actually read it through to the end, and I ended up enjoying it.  As mentioned above, it is a page-turner, in the good sense as well as the bad, and the further the story progressed, the more I wanted to know about Franco-era Spain and Morocco.  It’s an interesting setting for a World War II thriller, playing out in a country which isn’t actually taking part in the conflict (even if it is very clear whose side Spain is actually on).

So is it worth reading?  I would argue that this depends very much on the reader.  If you crave literary fiction, books which are written in elegant and mesmerising language, painstakingly constructed with vast repositories of hidden meaning, then The Seamstress is definitely not for you.  However, if you enjoy historical fiction and ripping yarns, especially those told in the first-person by a young female narrator, you may well get a lot out of this novel (I’ve had a quick look around the blogosphere, and it appears that I am pretty much alone in my opinion of the book!).

Still, one thing’s for sure – I don’t think I’ll be getting any unrequested ARCs again in a hurry…


18 thoughts on “Coming Apart at the Seams

  1. Oops, that didn't look like a book for you to start with, and so it turned out to be. Well done for reading it.

    Credit to you for reading it all the way. I think this was a question of mismatching blogger and book.

    I'm not eager to read this book either, but I think it would be more my kind of book than yours. I'm sure it was an experience…


  2. Guess whoever sent the Arc, hadn't checked you out first, I've not received any unsolicited copies, but am getting requests to do reviews, so not quite climbing to your rarefied mountain top vista, but with a good set of binoculars I can get the odd glance. Maybe not the book for you, but Congrats on attaining a summit.


  3. Do you already have a review policy thingy posted?
    I must admit I get asked occasionally but turn down far over 90% of the books. I used to do this for a living and got paid. I don't know why I should do this for free unless I'd want to read the book anyway.
    I read a book last year called The Postmisress and the one you got sounds similar. I didn't even enjoy it all that much despite some page turner qualities.


  4. this would be my type of book in a way as I read more spanish lit than you tony but I m always wary of the top line international bestseller I always think that means it isn't the most lit book to start with ,I get lot of unrequested books annoying sometimes ,all the best stu


  5. I think I've gotten a total of maybe 4 unsolicited review copies in 3 years, and none of them was a book that seemed right for me. (One was on the fringes, so I read it and didn't like it.)

    I think I had an e-galley of this from Netgalley but it expired before I got around to reading it. It sounded like something I might like, because of the setting, but not a sure-fire winner.


  6. I'm into Spain and Morocco lit and if there is a good book on that I'll read it. Then again I like receiving ARCs, but again I'd rather not, it just throw my reading plan out of tangent. Well done for reading it through.


  7. I don't get many (hardly any actually) unsolicited ARCs, which is a good thing really as I am such a slow reader and as much as I might like the sound of a new book, I usually already have too many started anyway to squeeze in yet another. That said, this one is actually waiting for me at the library. I have heard mixed things, so I know going in that it is going to be more an entertainment rather than high art, and in the right mood-that is just fine by me. I'd say it would be a perfect gym book (that being one that doesn't require too much concentration and that I can read even with all the noisy distractions), except I've seen this one already and it's sort of chunky. Despite it's flaws, it must have had something going for it since you finished it. 🙂


  8. Judith – It's a book that needs a certain kind of reader, one who likes romance and historical fiction but isn't too fussy about literary qualities. i.e. not me 🙂

    Gary – Definitely not 🙂 This is my first and only (and I don't get asked to do anything!), so you're probably closer to the summit than I am!

    Caroline – I don't mention anything about review copies, but my interests are highlighted prominently on the blog. I think that this may have been sent because it is translated fiction.

    Could be one for your war readalongs though 😉

    Stu – If you know any publishers who want *quality* translated fiction reviewed Stu, please send them in my direction 😉

    Teresa – If you're interested in the setting, it might be worth a read (although 600 pages is a bit much to gamble on!). I am surprised though that you don't get more books dropping through your letter box 😉

    Jo – Well, this was a best-seller 🙂 I like ARCs, but as I don't really have a lot of good contacts, it's usually a case of me sending a begging e-mail (and, more often than not, being ignored). It's not really worth it on the whole 😦

    Danielle – I really forced myself to read a lot on the first day, lessening the chance of a DNF (but then I haven't had one of those in the whole three years of my blog!). There are sections which are gripping, but the overall verdict is a lightweight read. It's actually written by a Spanish academic – who obviously fancied herself as a bit of a novelist 😉


  9. I got this as well, and think it is actually something that I would like, but I only got as far as page 29 before I put it down because of a pressing deadline on something else and I haven't actually picked it up again!


  10. Marg – Funnily enough, when I was thinking of a blogger who might like this, your name was top of the list (by which I mean only nice things, of course!).


  11. You're moving on up! Though it is funny that they sent you the book. Has the publisher even looked at your blog? It's pretty obvious that this isn't really your type of book.

    I don't think I'd like it much either. I don't really enjoy romance or historical fiction.


  12. I just finished reading this and I can see where your criticisms are coming from, though I think my final opinion is a little more positive. The prose is certainly plain and I would have liked some descriptions of Morocco and Spain, but I did think it an effective angle on this bit of history.


  13. I think that many people will like this, especially if they are coming at it from a romance-historical fiction viewpoint. I'm primarily lit. fic., and that's why this just didn't do it for me.


  14. Your review has actually made me more keen to read this one. I love plot based stoies and so don't think I'll have the same problems as you did. In fact I may go and pick up my copy right now!


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