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Onyx reviews: What We Become by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 8/09/2016

Max Costa belongs to that rare breed of character known as the gentleman thief, the kind popularized by Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. These men have style. They know how to dress for any occasion. Women are fascinated by and attracted to them. They have skills that make them popular in polite society: they can dance and they can make polite conversation on any subject. Despite their power over women, men don't resent them. They want to be like them.

Max comes from humble beginnings, growing up in a rough neighborhood in Buenos Aires, but he has been fortunate, plucked from this obscure life and groomed for greater things. His avocation takes him around the world, but it is a precarious existence. Men may admire his smooth tongue and his easy ways, but the police are always on his trail and he is usually only a step or two ahead of them. Until he isn't, and he suffers another of several setbacks.

In 1928, Max is a young man bound for his home city aboard the trans-Atlantic luxury liner Cap Polonio, where he's working in the ballroom as a dancer. When husbands are too bored or too inept to accompany their partners on the dance floor, Max steps in and relieves them of the burden. It also provides him with the opportunity to examine the wealthy passengers to see what valuables he might relieve them of.

On this voyage, he encounters Armando de Troeye, a famous composer who is traveling to Argentina to compose a tango. As it happens, tangos are Max's specialty, as he so capably demonstrates with de Troeye's wife, Mecha, who also knows her way around a dance floor.

Max befriends the composer and his wife, promising to show them the real tango, the historical dance that has its roots in the lower class districts of his home city. It's not the elegant and elevated dance that has been popularized. It is the music and movement of a raunchier place and time. Max is fascinated by the beautiful Mecha—as well as by her luxurious pearl necklace—and the two embark on a tango of a different sort, an endeavor made all the more daring by the complicated relationship between de Troeye and his wife.

This won't be the last time Max and Mecha cross paths. The book starts nearly forty years later, when Max's glory days are behind him. While his employer is away on vacation, Max—now a chauffeur and personal assistant living in the outskirts of Sorrento in southern Italy—goes into town and has a chance encounter with a familiar figure from his past. He hasn't seen Mecha for nine years, when they met for the second time in Nice, France, shortly before World War II, against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Mecha's husband is in prison and Max is being pressured to steal important documents. 

On both previous occasions, circumstances required that Max flee from the woman who he considers his one true love. Now, in 1966, while Mecha's son competes with a Russian in an important chess match, Max wonders if it's too late to rekindle this relationship that has been fraught with so much drama over the course of his life. When he's called upon once again to dust off his old skills, he's confronted with the reality of age and the effects of the passage of time. 

What We Become is a fascinating romance story set against the backdrop of several different and perfectly recreated turbulent eras with a melancholy protagonist and the femme fatale who impels him to do dangerous things.

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