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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | BIOGRAPHY

December 29, 1996|CAROLYN SEE | Carolyn See's most recent book is "Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America" (Random House). "The Handyman: A Love Story" is her novel in progress. She lives in Topanga

"Santa Evita" by Tomas Eloy Martinez (Alfred A. Knopf) is a beautiful novel of yearning, obsession, holiness, good deeds and bad deeds. By the end you've fallen in love not just with Evita, but with Buenos Aires, Argentina, madness. It's based on "reality." It starts at the deathbed of Eva Peron and the whole book concerns a leap into sainthood.

The body of Evita is embalmed by an embalmer who falls in love with her; the embalmer--just as in a fairy tale--makes eight or nine fiberglass copies of her embalmed body. For the rest of the novel everyone chases around trying to get ahold of the embalmed body of Evita because they are all either in love with her or they hate her or it really doesn't matter. Every time government officials, secret servicemen or the raging populace try to get ahold of the body, "miracles" keep happening around it. They can't get rid of her, they can't seem to get her buried. The movie will make the subject of Eva Peron trendy for six months, but Martinez has created a novel that will last for decades.

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