Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 · Books

Reading Challenge 2016: Sixth Book Review

I just finished my longest book of 2016, Fortunata and Jacinta, subtitled, Two Stories of Married Women by Benito Perez Galdos. It falls under the category of a classic in translation.

I was introduced to Galdos last year by my friend Silvia. She couldn’t say enough good about this author (her enthusiasm was infectious). In fact, I chose one of his shorter works, Doña Perfecta, last year for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 in the category of a forgotten classic. But Silvia waxed eloquently about her love for Fortunata and Jacinta so it was no contest as to which book I would choose in this category for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

Fortunata and Jacinta is not a quick read. The Penguin paperback has over 800 pages. I had several false starts. There are a lot of characters introduced rather quickly which I found confusing. It didn’t help that I began the book, put it down due to various life distractions, picked it back up and found I needed to begin at the beginning all over again. This happened three times! I admit to being tempted at one point to just forget it, but Silvia’s enthusiasm held sway and like they say, the “third time is a charm.”

I am so glad I didn’t leave this one on the shelf.

Fortuanta and Jacinta was published by Galdos in installments in 1886-87. It is the story of two women who love the same man; one is his wife, Jacinta, and the other is his mistress, Fortunata. It is the story of Madrid, the story of everyday life of all classes of people. The language, like the story itself is rich and full. I found myself rereading passages just for the sheer pleasure of how the words flowed. Galdos was indeed gifted with words. There is so much to this book, the characters, events, and details that I can’t even begin to discuss in a short book review. Galdos touches on virtually every subject; love, marriage, family, adultery, friendship, betrayal, business, birth, death, mental illness, politics, poverty, wealth, religion, and not to forget, the Spanish convent.

Juan Santa Cruz, the handsome, rich, and very indulged young man who hasn’t worked a day in his life is loved by both women. He meets Fortunata, a poor, “adorable little wild thing, a savage girl who didn’t know how to read or write,” a low class woman who also happens to be extremely beautiful. Although the story doesn’t give a lot of details about their initial relationship he apparently gets tired of her and dismisses her with barely a second thought. He marries Jacinta, a young woman also beautiful and worthy of his class and place in society.

Benito Perez Galdos, 1843-1920

After being abandoned by yet another lover Fortunata meets Maximiliano who falls in love with her  almost immediately. He sets her up in an apartment and plans to marry her. Maxi is painted by Galdos as the polar opposite of Juan; ugly, physically weak, and a working man. There is nothing appealing about him except for the fact that he cares deeply for Fortunata. Their union is anything but successful.

When Juan discovers the whereabouts of Fortunata he does everything in his power to seduce her into another affair and she happily goes along with it, leaving her husband with barely a second thought.

And what of Jacinta, the long suffering, infertile wife of Juan? Poor thing! She wanted children more than anything but it was not to be. She was the one I felt the most sympathy for. She is referred to as an “angel” throughout the book. She knew something wasn’t right with her husband but she couldn’t prove anything and suffered in silence.

“She was more concerned about the conduct of the ungrateful soul sleeping so peacefully beside her. She had no doubt about it: Juan had something on his mind. His parents didn’t notice it for the simple reason that they never saw him at such close range as she did. The perfidious creature kept up appearances so well that nothing he said or did outwardly revealed anything but consistent and extremely correct behavior. He treated his wife so affectionately that … well, one would have thought he really was in love with her.  …   

 

His mama said that he was the perfect husband. The big rascal! And the wife couldn’t say a word to her mother-in-law when the latter came out with remarks like these. How could she tell her: ‘Well, he’s not the perfect husband, and I know what I’m talking about.'”

There was so much I wanted to talk about as I read the story.  Silvia was the only person I knew who had read the book so we kept up an email conversation about it. I would state my opinions regarding the characters and events, and she would listen sweetly and encourage me to keep on reading. I asked her questions about the characters but absolutely forbade her from answering! I didn’t want to know what would happen one second ahead of time!

My least favorite character was Juan. What a cad! What a self centered egotist! Did he get it in the end? Did he suffer any consequences for his actions? And what about Fortunata and Jacinta? Did anyone live happily ever after?

Well, I’m not about to tell you! And you really don’t want me to tell you and spoil it for you.

This book is so worth reading! The story is larger than life. Madrid and Spain of the 1870’s will come alive. The characters are memorable. Some you will love and others, not so much. I didn’t know much about 19th century Spain before I began this book but it has surely whetted my appetite to find out more.

And isn’t that a sign of a good book? This is one title on my “To Be Read Again” list for sure.

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. And should you get waylaid in the beginning like I did don’t give up! You will not be sorry.

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5 thoughts on “Reading Challenge 2016: Sixth Book Review

  1. This review makes me soooo happy.

    I'm a Galdós ambassador (by my own device), and I'm truly grateful that my English speaking two friends I've recommended him to, have loved his writing, specially this long book.

    I believe we all need a book coach when reading a long book, not to give up. Long books are most rewarding, but they need certain initial stamina.

    Galdos is not widely known in the Anglo world, and my theory it's because he competes with some of the titans of literature. If you are a fan of Trollope, Dickens, Zola, “the Russians”, you are a potential fan of Galdos. But he gets swallowed by those traditions (British, Russian, French).

    Galdós translated Dickens himself, and was a fan. If you are reading Linda's beautiful review, and you wonder what you would find in him that those other authors don't have, this is it, to me. Galdós is not as corseted as the English authors, he writes distinctively from the middle and low class point of view. My friend Heather says there's more on food, clothes, 'sensual' regarding 'senses' in Galdós than in Dickens, for a comparison. We three (Linda, Heather, and I), agree that we also love his pronounced sense of humor. Another of his trademarks I have not come across in literature that much, it's his dialogue. Galdós traveled by train a lot, to hear people talk and to use that for his books. And I can assure you his skill and imagination for characters and how he makes them talk has, to me, no rival.

    Getting into the book requires a few 80 pages, even a 100, but if one perseveres through the avalanche of names and newness of the whole thing, you'll resurface victorious into the middle of the Madrid of the late XIX century.

    With Galdós, I forget I'm reading a book. It's as if I were a fly on the wall, and I have vivid experiences of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and living the entire book.

    I also love Jacinta, and Maxi… as Heather says, even the most despicable characters have something, if not likable, surely interesting and compelling.

    Galdós is a generous writer. He has always enjoyed an unwavering popularity among readers. The critics and accolades have come and gone, and they are now standing strong, as time passes and, I guess, people realize how unique his literary talent is.

    Linda, thanks for having faith in my recommendation. Good luck in the rest of the challenge. I'll be following you here, as always.

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  2. I wouldn't even have heard of the man if it weren't for you! I am hoping English speakers will begin to flock to his writing.

    You are so right about what you said. The conversations are amazing, pages of conversation, descriptions that are most vivid, and characters that are so real.

    So what else by him is available in English? I've read Dona Perfecta and this one. Are there any others?

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  3. Between the two of you, I think I'm convinced. It will probably go on next year's Back to the Classics. I'll have to stop reading these book reviews…

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  4. There's many more, and some free.

    I think I need to write a blog post and add links to his books in translation. And Carol will come to camp Galdós.

    Carol, you may start with “Our Friend Manso”, it's 300 pages, versus the 800 plus of Fortunata.

    I'm going to publish a post with your many options to read him in English.

    Trafalgar, the first of his historic novels, called National Episodes, it's about that, Trafalgar's battle. (I forgot to mention he's also the Spanish Walter Scott!, no kidding, he wrote 46 of those short novels. From Wikipedia: They are divided into five series and they deal with Spanish History from roughly 1805 to 1880. They are fictional accounts which add characters invented by the author within historical events.

    I did enjoy Trafalgar. If you are studying that period in history, the novel is perfect. It's the naval battle between French and Spanish, in which Nelson assisted the French and defeated the Spanish, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Trafalgar, so it's told from the always most interesting 'loser point of view', ha ha ha.
    From that book, I not only got knowledge on that particular battle, far from that, it's my only way (through a novel like this), to paint a picture of the Napoleonic era. To me, history was taught very disconnected and in an abstract way, thanks to historic novels, I get the idea of those times.

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