Friday, May 29, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

I am a fan of Ruta Sepetys’ work. She writes serious YA historical fiction set in times and places that have not received enough attention. My favorite was her first: Between Shades of Gray.

The most recent novel is The Fountains of Silence, set in post-WWII fascist Spain. Francisco Franco is dictator and the people are living in fear and silence. Franco has begun “opening” up the country to foreign investment, particularly to U.S. oil interests. Although there is a good deal of skepticism about Franco’s supposed reforms, money is money, so U.S. companies are willing to do business with Spain and ignore any signs of oppression.

The novel follows eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, son of a Texas oil tycoon and a Spanish mother, who wants to be a photo-journalist if he can avoid being roped into the family business. On a visit to Madrid with his parents, Daniel meets a young local woman, Ana Torres Moreno, who works as a maid in the “American” hotel. They are attracted to one another. However, Daniel is a wealthy, privileged American. Ana is the daughter of murdered Republicans. She is poor, oppressed, and full of secrets.

There are a slew of other characters as well: Rafa, Ana’s brother and Fuga, his friend. They survived brutal torture as children. Fuga is determined to be a bullfighter and Rafa wants to be his supporter and promoter. Ana’s family also includes a sister and brother-in-law, who are struggling to make ends meet, especially now with a new baby. And she has a cousin, Puri, who works in an orphanage. In the hotel, Daniel meets Nick, the son of a diplomat, Ben, a reporter who is impressed by Daniel’s photographs, and some of the other staff. Everyone has secrets. Even Daniel’s parents. Even Daniel.

Despite being intrigued by the setting, I had a hard time getting into this book. It’s long, at about 475 pages, not including notes, photos, and a glossary. But long isn’t bad in historical novels and 475 pages isn’t terribly long for the genre. It just read very slowly. There were so many characters and bouncing viewpoints that it was difficult to feel close to any of them. And the brooding atmosphere and abundance of secrets made it feel like the plot didn’t go anywhere for quite a long time. Rather than ramping up tension, all the hinting at hiddenness dragged the book down. It wasn’t that it was confusing. The writing is clear. But it wasn’t until nearly page 300 that it felt like the story started to come together. Moreover, there was no solving of any of the problems. Essentially, everyone had to simply lie low until Franco died and enough time passed to move on.

I am glad to have read the book. It did bring to life a hidden time period. The rather depressing atmosphere of the book was appropriate to the subject matter. But I think the story itself would have been a more compelling read if it had been streamlined a bit.