I highly recommend this engaging, readable book. The story concerns a couple of brothers (twins), Eduard and Pep. Eduard lives a “normal” life in Barcelona with his wife and three children; Pep, who previously disappeared for a long period, has reinvented himself as “Borja”, an impoverished aristocrat, and does not let Eduard tell anyone, even his wife, that the two are brothers. Borja’s name is not his only invention; he also owns a business that does nothing but has an opulent front. Eduard used to work in a bank but now “works” with his brother as his partner – they do small tasks for the rich of Barcelona, such as quietly selling assets on behalf of their owners. There’s a lot of back story in the first half of the book about the two brothers and their rather tragic boyhood, and about the social scene among the upper echelons of Catalan society. I loved reading all this, but if you like books that jump right into a fast-moving plot, be warned that the jewels in this novel (and there are many) are not of that variety.
The plot-proper concerns a request to the brothers by a leading politician, Lluis Font. Font has discovered a portrait of his wife in an art catalogue. He has purchased the picture concerned, but wants the brothers to find out if there are any more of them, and if so to discreetly stop them becoming public knowledge, as this would cause a scandal and upset Font’s chances at party leadership. Always a month away from financial disaster and with Christmas coming up, the brothers take the commission and the associated ready cash, and begin to follow the wife. This provides the author with many excellent opportunities to present a scathing yet lightly amusing account of high-society life, exposing it as a nest of permanently shallow people obsessed with personal appearance and shopping for nonessential luxuries. Naturally, events escalate as the brothers find out more and more unexpected truths, culminating in a genuine murder case.
There’s lots to love about this book, particularly the way the author combines a story about three generations of a family, with telling, witty portraits of all the characters. I suspect she does not put a foot wrong in her portrait of class snobbery or of social climbing, or of attitudes among the middle classes represented by Eduard’s wife and sister in law. Very few of the characters are well-read – Eduard had dropped out of his degree in Catalan literature in disgust after undertaking a survey to show that nobody in the department had actually read Don Quixote (which he himself found indigestible) – but he’s an educated man (his knowledge of the classics comes in useful at the end) and in his relative ordinariness and lack of eccentricity, an apt narrator. The only other “intellectuals” in the novel are the various police officers who appear now and again: everyone else is frantically pursuing courses of alternative therapies, beautification, watching football or other trivialities, causing Eduard to reflect on what the anti-Franco revolts of his youth had in fact achieved, as his city increasingly becomes an overcrowded, homogenised temple to Mammon, and where the very rich live in a bubble of their own creation, regarding everyone else, whether middle-class professionals or people living in boxes on the street, as poor and beneath contempt.
There’s much more to this novel – overwhelmingly, it has a wonderful sense of atmosphere so that the reader is totally immersed in Catalan ways and mores. I found the crime plot (after the murder is committed) less interesting, and wonder if the author could have got away without even introducing it. There is a rather hastily added denouement and a paragraph or two of moralising which is the only time the author loses her admirable ability to be serious with a light touch. One of the many positive aspects is that the story of the brothers (particularly Pep/Borja), though now revealed in outline, has many tantalising gaps and aspects (such as Eduard’s mother in law and Borja’s relationships with his mistress and Eduard’s sister in law) that have plenty of potential for future development.
(I borrowed this book from the library.)