`Husband': Excesses aside, a good story

September 12, 2004|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Divine Husband, by Francisco Goldman. Atlantic Monthly Press. 496 pages. $24.

I tried for days to enter the sea of Francisco Goldman's third novel. Again and again, I was thrown back to shore. There was the complication of the plot itself, the raucous cast of perhaps countless characters, the shifts in time and mood and place. There were the sentences - elaborate, redoubtable - and there were the single paragraphs that sometimes stretched over several breathless pages. I'd get just so far, and then be knocked to my knees. I'd breathe deeply and stand and try again.

It was only after I'd managed my way past the barrier reef of The Divine Husband that some of the story's deliberate opacity finally and happily lifted. What we had here, I came to understand, was the perpetually percolating tale of a friendship between two women whose lives are knotted together by something like luck or fate.

The true protagonist of the novel is Maria de las Nieves Moran, who is the daughter of an Irish-American father and a Mayan Indian mother and is "skinny as a puppet made of hinged sticks" when we first meet her in convent school in 19th-century Central America. Her friend is the beautiful and well-endowed Paquita, who was born to wealth and is being pursued by a much-too-ambitious general. In an attempt to save her friend from the general, Maria de las Nieves makes a binding vow with Paquita. Paquita will remain a virgin, Maria declares (and Paquita agrees) until Maria is no longer one herself. To underscore her commitment to the vow, Maria enters the cloister and becomes a novice nun. Maria's strategy doesn't work, of course. Soon enough, the convent is closed, Paquita marries the general-cum-dictator, and Maria de las Nieves mothers a child out of wedlock.

But who does Maria de las Nieves love, and who is the father of her daughter? How do politics, coincidence, poetry, secrecy, betrayal, caste systems and female intelligence shape a life and heart? And, to quote the narrator, "What if love, earthly or divine, is to history as air is to a rubber balloon?" These are among the questions that drive Goldman's complex novel, and over the course of his pages, we meet Maria de las Nieves' various loves, one of whom is the Cuban poet and revolutionary Jose Marti. Could he have fathered our heroine's daughter? Does he refer to Maria in the small slips of poetry? Years later, tenuously, but necessarily reunited, Paquita presses Maria for answers. Her questions send Maria back through time and through the written words of and about the tenderhearted and irrepressibly amorous poet.

The Divine Husband is an intricately wrought tale, a book that takes all kinds of risks with storytelling and readers' patience. It is an interesting mix of effusive story telling and dry asides - most effective when it is moving the story forward with dialogue and plot than when it stews in its own historical research or sometimes overly engineered enthusiasms.

There is, I think, far too much here - too many ideas, too many subplots, too much brightly tinted but often tangential cleverness - all of which keeps at least this one reader from caring as much as she might have about the answers to the too many questions. And yet I came away from this novel with enormous respect for Goldman's talent for delving very deep into the tales he seeks to tell.

Beth Kephart is the author, most recently, of Seeing Past Z: Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World.

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