Category Archives: Spain

Review: The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendariz

I received a review copy of this title from Hispabooks via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original Spanish in 2015 and this English version has been translated by Jonathan Dunne.  Hispabooks specializes in publishing contemporary Spanish books into English translation.  For more information about their titles please visit their website:

My Review:
Plimsoll LineThe author explains to us in the introduction of the book that the Plimsoll Line is a mark on a ship’s hull that indicates the maximum depth a vessel can be immersed into the water when it is loaded with cargo without being sunk.  In the 18th century, British merchants would overload their cargo, knowing full well that the ships would sink and then they would collect the insurance money on them.  The Plimsoll Line was then marked on all ships to prevent shipwrecks and save lives.  The main character in this book bears so much cargo in the form of tragedy that he wonders if he has overstepped his personal Plimsoll Line and will sink into oblivion.

Gabriel Ariz is a university professor and an art critic who loves working and his job even though he doesn’t have to work for a living.  His wife’s inheritance would allow them to live quite comfortably with a nice custom-built home in the forest and luxury vacations.  Gabriel and his wife’s comfortable world is shattered by the death of their only child, their daughter, who dies at the tender age of twenty in a tragic car accident on Christmas Eve.  This event marks the beginning of a series of misfortunes that weigh heavily on Gabriel.

Before their daughter died, Gabriel and his wife seemed to be drifting further and further apart and this tragedy precipitated the end of their marriage.   When Gabriel’s wife, Ana,  announces that she is leaving he is neither surprised or terribly upset.  But the constant loneliness in his big house with no one but his cat Polanski for company starts to wear on him.  To top it all off, he doesn’t feel well and his doctor diagnoses him with kidney failure.  Because of his illness he is forced to quit his beloved job and go to dialysis three times a week for five hours at a time.  Is this what will sink him below his Plimsoll Line?

One of the hardest parts of the book to read are the very detailed descriptions of Gabriel’s dialysis treatments.  He talks about insertion of tubes and machines and the cleansing of his blood through this process.  I was so uncomfortable when I was reading these passages that I almost skipped over them to spare myself from these graphic scenes.  But then I realized that Armendariz is providing for us the a realistic view of what it means to lose one’s precious grasp on health.  Our health and our well-being is never something we should take for granted.

In addition to Gabriel, the author also gives us different points-of-view throughout the story.  For instance, in order to describe Gabriel and his home the author puts us in the place of an invisible observer whom only the cat can see.  We walk through Gabriel’s house as  if we are getting a private tour of it’s décor, pictures and personal touches.  We are also given the point-of-view of the cat who knows that there is something not-quite-right about his owner who sleeps at strange hours and wanders around the house in his tattered bathrobe.  Polanski’s favorite pastime is keeping Gabriel’s garden free of mole’s.

The most intriguing and the lengthiest point-of-view we are given is Gabriel’s daughter who has been deceased for three years when the story begins.  Gabriel finds a diary that was hidden in the garden and was dug up when there was a tangle between Polanski and a mole.  A large part of the second half of the book includes these diary entries written by Laura.  As Gabriel reads her entries, which were recorded during the last few years of her life, he realizes that he didn’t know his daughter very well at all.  She had struggles, worries and concerns that were typical of a young woman on the verge of adulthood but his relationship with her only existed on the surface.  Laura’s diary also reveals a very shocking detail about her life about which Gabriel and his wife were completely unaware.  I haven’t read a book in a long time with such a shocking twist or revelation in the plot.

Finally, I would like to make one  more comment about the author’s writing style.  I’ve already mentioned the details he gives about Gabriel’s medical treatments, but this style of providing information about minutiae pervades the book.  At times the details seem cumbersome and make the narrative feel as though the author has strayed too far from his plotline.  For example, towards the end of the book Gabriel makes a decision not to commit suicide because he enjoys light too much.  The author goes on for several paragraphs about different types of light we experience.  I think he could have made the same point with fewer examples.

Overall, this is a great book for Spanish Lit month and I would recommend it just for the plot twist revealed in the diary entries.  But the remarkable resilience and strength of character we encounter in Gabriel makes it well-worth the read.

How is everyone else doing with the Spanish Lit month reading?

About the Author:
ArmendarizJuan Gracia Armendáriz (Pamplona, 1965) is a Spanish fiction writer and contributor to many Spanish newspapers. He has also been part-time professor at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, and has many works of literary and documentary research. As a writer, he has published a book of poems, short stories, nonfiction books—biographical sketches and a historical story—and several novels. The Plimsoll Line is part of the “Trilogy of Illness”, formed by three separate books that reflect his experience as a person with kidney trouble. The novel was awarded the X Premio Tiflos de Novela 2008.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Spain, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, Other Press.  This was originally written and published in French and this English translation is by John Cullen

My Review:
Exchange of PrincessesIn 1721, the regent of France, Philip D’Orleans, decides that the best alliance that the eleven-year-old King Louis XV can make with Spain is through marriage.  The regent proposes that Louis XV marry the princess of Spain, who is only four-years-old at the time of their betrothal.  The regent will also give his own daughter, Louise Elizabeth, a moody 11- year-old girl, to the Prince of Spain, also just a boy of 12,  as a show of good faith.  If you are already confused about names and ages then please don’t let that discourage from reading the book; I was confused in the beginning as well but the author does a good job of repeating the names and making the characters clear and distinct.  In 1722, both princesses set out on a long and arduous trek on the unpaved and rough roads between France and Spain.  The princesses are exchanged on the middle of the journey and each one proceeds to her new home and position.

My favorite part of the book is reading about the four-year-old Spanish princess;  like any little girl she loves her dolls, playing games, and being lavished with attention.  She is talkative and precocious and all of France and the French court becomes smitten with this charming little girl.  The author describes the very adult tasks that she must endure such as receiving ambassadors from foreign countries and attending balls in her honor.  At one such ceremony the little infanta is described as sucking on her thumb and clutching her favorite doll while a group of academics from the University of Paris pay their respects to her.  The only one who is not taken in by the charms of the princess is her own husband, King Louis XV.

Things do not go quite as smoothly as Philip D’Orleans had expected as far as these arranged marriages are concerned.  But, what did the regent expect when he decided to base political alliances on the lives of children?  Even though the little princess, Marianna Victoria, is a delightful four-year-old, her future husband, the king, is a jealous and petty eleven-year-old boy who is very upset that his nanny is now taking care of his future bride.  As he grows up he has no interest, whatsoever in spending any time with her or getting to know her.  The infanta, on the other hand, worships the king and is so thrilled whenever he is around her.

Meanwhile, in Spain the roles are reversed as Louise Elizabeth, the future Queen of Spain, wants nothing to do with her husband Don Luis.  The future King of Spain is so thrilled to have a pretty wife and he wants nothing more than to consummate their marriage.  But Louise Elizabeth does everything she can to keep the Prince away from her.  I don’t want to give too much away, but nothing works out in the end as the regent had intended.

The Exchange of Princesses actually reads more like a non-fiction history book than an historical fiction.  The author uses real letters from the characters involved as well as newspaper articles from the time period.  There are great details about ceremonies, details of palaces and descriptions of costumes.  If you are looking for a fast-paced, exciting historical fiction novel then this is not the book to read.  However, if you want to learn something about the political situation between France and Spain during the 18th century and the players involved then this well-researched novel is the perfect choice.


About The Author:
Chantal Thomas (born 1945 in Lyon) is a French writer and historian. Her 2002 book, Farewell, My Queen, won the Prix Femina and was adapted into a 2012 film starring Diane Kruger and Léa Seydoux.

Thomas was born in Lyon in 1945, and was raised in Arcachon, Bordeaux, and Paris. Her life has included teaching jobs at American and French universities (such as Yale and Princeton) as well as a publishing career. She has published nineteen works, including essays on the Marquis de Sade, Casanova, and Marie Antoinette.

In 2002, Thomas published Les adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen). The novel gave a fictional account of the final days of Marie Antoinette in power through the perspective of one of her servants. It won the Prix Femina in 2002, and was later adapted into the 2012 film Farewell, My Queen. The film stars Diane Kruger as the titular queen and Léa Seydoux as her servant Sidonie Laborde. Thomas co-wrote the screenplay,and it opened the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival. Helen Falconer of The Guardian called the work “a well written slice of history” with “evocative, observant prose,” but criticized it for creating a narrator who “merely provides us with a pair of eyes to see through rather than capturing our interest in her own right.” While disagreeing in its classification as a novel, Falconer did however add that Farewell, My Queen “generates in the reader a real sense of being a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the affairs of the great and the not so good.”

Thomas is currently the director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.



Filed under France, Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, Spain