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
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
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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