by Teresa de la Parra
The heroine of this book, Maria Eugenia Alonso, ‘…is a half-educated young woman, confused by personal vanity and romantic fantasies, often floundering in her efforts to express a critical outlook on society and personal relations.’ So says Naomi Lindstrom in her introduction to the book. I was grateful for her introduction, as it helped me to keep clear in my mind the intent of the author who brought the flighty, excitable Maria Eugenia to life.
I both liked and disliked this book, and I both identified strongly with and at the same time could not comprehend Maria Eugenia. Written through a very long letter and then a series of diary entries, the book follows a few years of Maria’s life – from when her father dies and she leaves France to return to her family home in Caracas, Venezuela as an 18 year old, up until her marriage to Cesar Leal.
I readily identified with Maria’s use of the written word to help puzzle out the world around her. She is intelligent and independent-minded, and her glimpse of freedom before she was thrust back into the sheltered environment of her society sparked off a good deal of thoughts and insights on her part. I enjoyed many of these. On the other hand her focus on material pleasures and comforts irked me. One moment she would be dishing out a lovely strong opinion and the next she would be melodramatizing her plight. She frustrated me in that she tried to fight against the strict moral and social codes enforced by everyone around her, but she didn’t try in the right way. For instance, she secretly read books that her Grandmother didn’t approve of, but she did it only for pleasure and out of stubbornness. It didn’t occur to her to apply herself a little more and actually study.
The book was scandalous when it first came out in the early 1920s because it painted such a clear portrait of a passionate young woman completely trapped in a patriarchal society, who because she lacked the money to establish herself, was forced to remain there, ‘sacrificed’ like Iphigenia of the Greek myth.
The ending of the book is disappointing but not surprising. I was expecting it, and since I didn’t feel very invested in Maria’s fate I found myself bored by the agony of her choice between the married man she adores and the wealthy fiance whom she hates. I didn’t find myself despising Maria for her choice, however, so in that Teresa de la Parra was successful, in showing how it was the society that beat down so efficiently a bright and beautiful girl. The book is full of energy but is ultimately deflating.
After finishing it I did find myself feeling profoundly grateful that I don’t live in Maria’s world, and that even though I am so similar to her (half-educated, confused by personal vanity and romantic fantasies, often floundering, poorish) I can forge my own way in the world and pick my adventures and pursuits. And I don’t have an overbearing grandmother snatching books like this one out of my hands!
I definitely want to find out more about the author, as she was everything that Maria wanted to be – well read, socially prominent, elegant, respected – a free woman. She succeeded in the society where Maria failed, and it was this that prompted her to write Iphigenia so that in some way she could encourage other women to do the same. After being kind of bummed out by Maria Eugenia Alonso, I am ready to be inspired by Teresa de la Parra!
(This was my 5th book for the OT Challenge, although I didn’t manage to finish it until August… On to my 6th book!)