Dial Press: 248 pp., $25
She has the first line: "Give me your hand." He has had enough to drink to risk making a fool of himself. So, pale, blue-eyed Bluhm, egged on by his friends, lets Maria, a black-haired beauty, lead him onto the dance floor at a dive called Lima Nights. And so it begins.
Carlos Bluhm, we learn, hails from a prominent German Peruvian family with deep roots in Lima. His grandfather built the gated mansion at 300 Avenida Rivera that Carlos' banker father filled with servants and the clink and laughter of lavish parties, and which his mother cushioned with fragrant gardens. But times have changed. It's 1986, the Shining Path is terrorizing the land, and the family's affluence and influence have waned. Still, Carlos, a camera salesman of modest means, lives in style in the Bluhm stronghold with his energetic mother, Dorotea; elegant wife, Sophie; and excellent sons, Fritz and Rudy. It's a "familial paradise." Yet Bluhm carouses with the boys and conducts casual affairs. He tells himself that sex is "just sex, an indulgence that didn't have to unravel the family fabric or drain anybody's bank account." And he laughs when his friends assume that he prefers dark-skinned women because "an Indian woman was more disposable."
Born on the edge of the Amazon jungle, Maria Fernandez lives in the poorest, foulest and most dangerous part of the city on a rutted dirt road in a "cement box with a corrugated tin roof." Her father was stabbed to death; her mother, "feral as a cat," takes in laundry; her two brothers are usually out of work. Determined Maria juggles two jobs: She bags groceries at an upscale store and dances at Lima Nights, wearing a red collar to signal her availability as a tango partner. Bluhm is shocked to learn that she is only 15, but he can't keep away. He finds Maria wild and joyous, the opposite of his restrained, increasingly severe wife. Determined Maria sees her golden admirer as the key to a better life.
Maria's family is mockingly skeptical when she tells them of the affair. Bluhm's friends are incensed by her youth and his romanticism. And their prejudice is stabbing. Indians are "dirty and dumb," says Marcus, the most flagrant. Bluhm shrugs it off, knowing that Maria is "pristine, luminous." He revels in her "unalloyed delight" for aspects of his daily routine he has always taken for granted. While she gambles on his willingness and ability to white-knight her out of poverty, he is oblivious to the consequences of his ardor. Of different generations and different worlds, they take immense pleasure in each other's bodies and coo together, "agreeing on some things they both loved: the color yellow, the warmth of the sun, the smell of the ocean." But such moments of contentment quickly give way to dread, setting the reader on pins and needles, certain that things will go spectacularly wrong for this outlaw couple.
Marie Arana is well-versed in dualities. In her much-admired 2001 memoir, "American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood," she tells the story of her heritage as the daughter of a Peruvian father and a blond American mother and of growing up in both Peru and the U.S. A former book editor and editor of the Washington Post Book World, she is now a full-time writer. Her first novel, "Cellophane" (2006), is an encompassing Amazon saga in which one family suffers the fallout of a pipe-dream endeavor that pits technology against nature. "Lima Nights," her second novel, is a study in contrasts and a devastating cross-cultural and cross-racial urban love story as sinuous, precise and incendiary as a tango.
The first half of this tightly wound and lacerating book comes to a shattering close. Fast forward 20 years. The once-gleaming Bluhm mansion is "decaying." The glum outcasts occupy separate bedrooms. Bluhm, now in his 60s, is feeling weak and bewildered. Maria has cut and bleached her hair, and she relies on telenovelas for company. Suspicion and doom fill the air. Like a surgeon making an incision, Arana slowly but surely reveals why the Indian and the German live as strangers. How each persists in seeing the other as somehow slightly less than human, more of an icon, a figment, a fading dream. Page by page, scene by scene, Arana discloses the lack of common ground and "common language." Maria and Bluhm share too few favorite things. Passion seems not to have led to understanding or trust. As for love, well, the dance isn't over until it's over. And Arana's characters are in for far more complex turns, dips and reversals than they, or we, can imagine.
Arana's prose is lustrous, supple and mesmerizing. The collision of finely rendered worlds that she choreographs is spiked with racism, class divides, the malignancy of imperialism and the poison of sexism. But as sociologically astute and psychologically nuanced as this whiplash tale is, Arana doesn't stop there. Instead, she infuses this vivid novel of eroticism and exoticism, scandal and alienation, pragmatism and betrayal with magic and spirit. There is profound failure in empathy, kindness and humor here, as well as deep-seated fear and pain. But there is also strength, revelation and hope. The novel ends with a fall and ascension. So rich in feeling and perception, so wrenching and paradoxical is "Lima Nights," its beautifully sad, mysterious and soulful music plays on long after the book is closed.