Sunday, December 03, 2006

Las viudas de los jueves by Claudia Piñeiro

At the onset of Claudia Piñeiro's prize-winning novel, Las viudas de los jueves (Thursday Widows, Alfaguara), three bodies lie at the bottom of a tranquil pool in a gated country estate in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

It's a Thursday night at the Scaglia house, the most magnificent in the neighborhood, and Mrs. Scaglia is strolling through the pool area gathering the empty wine glasses left over from her husband's weekly gatherings with his neighborhood buddies.

She doesn't detect a thing. She only worries about dropping the crystal glasses.

Across the street, a hysterical neighbor and member of the male-only Thursday social club at the Scaglia house has fallen down his stairwell and broken a leg. He begs his wife to take him across the street to his friends instead of the hospital. She thinks he's hallucinating from the pain.

At first, Piñeiro's novel appears to be a murder mystery. It has all the markings of one -- page-turner pacing, short breathless sentences, a great cast of suspects, and the looming sense throughout the novel that, although something terrible has already happened, something even more terrible is going to happen.

But this is no crime fiction. The suspense is a byproduct of Piñeiro's masterful hand at crafting a deeper story -- a psychological portrait of a professional class that lives beyond its means and leads secret lives of deadly stress and despair.

It's a universal story that will resonate among debt-ridden, downsized Americans, and even louder in Miami, home to hundreds of Argentine expatriates, and where Piñeiro will be featured Friday in the Miami Book Fair International's Spanish-language program.

''There's a tradition in Latin America of using elements from the detective story -- a murder, a crime -- to say things about society, in my case, about people who would go to an unthinkable extent for the sake of maintaining appearances and status,'' Piñeiro says in a telephone interview from her home in a Buenos Aires suburb. She lives in a country estate a lot like the one depicted in her novel, the fictional Altos de la Cascada (Waterfall Heights).
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