This story entwines two tales: one in the late 1990s an the other starts in 1492. Alegra Cardoza is a Native Floridian, descended from Cubans, who is looking for a new job, and perhaps a new life. She applies for a position as secretary to a history professor (Harold Guzman). In keeping his life organized, she learns that he is researching a writing a historical fiction about the Jewish expulsion of Spain in the late 15th century. The narration drops in and out of the fictional book the professor is writing, so we get to know the characters (mostly the Guzman family) in his book pretty well.
Wow! Just, simply, wow! I really enjoyed this book. Was I ignoring noisy chores, like vacuuming, just so I could listen to this book a little longer? Hell yes! Did I carry my laptop around with me so I could sneak in a few minutes of listening pleasure here and there, yes, I did. Perhaps I even ignored my man a little (I’ve made it up to him and now he has a great book recommendation for his next listen).
Normally, when two stories are intertwined like this, I tend to strongly enjoy one over the other and kind of wish that the focus was just on the one I enjoyed. In this case, I enjoyed both equally well even though they were each quite different. They were intertwined quite well, showing the differences and similarities between the two times (especially for women).
Alegra is a modern woman in America. She has a full time job, has a boyfriend, lives her life the way she wants to. She also sucks at dating and lets her sisters bully her into make-overs all too often. Her life is at a cross roads when she applies for and gets a job with Professor Guzman. Pretty soon, the two are headed to Spain for his further research. There, she learns of his manuscript. As the two become friends, he starts asking her for her opinion on certain scenes. This causes Alegra to question her own ancestry even to the point of wondering if some of her ancestors were New Christian Conversos who hid their Jewish faith in secrecy, which was eventually all but forgotten over time.
Meanwhile, back in the late 15th century Spain, the Guzman family are being expelled from Spain. The head of the family, Hermando, makes all the decisions for his wife (Estrella) and daughters and he has decided they will leave for Portugal. Unfortunately, Hanna has had a child outside of wedlock and her father refuses to take her with them. However, Estrella won;t give up easily and baby Belina ends up being raised by her grandparents and auntie Grazia. The Guzmans face many hardships throughout their years, mostly due to anti-Semitic views and politics. Even once they become New Christians (at least in public), they can’t seem to shake the prejudice and fears of others. This story line held some of the most moving scenes both of kindness and of horror.
Since the story bounced back and forth between the two tales, the professor and Alegra could talk honestly about the fate of most women in 15th century Europe. The professor would argue for authenticity in his writing; Alegra would argue that certain scenes were sexist or that women wouldn’t want to read that (rape scenes or women essentially being sold into marriage). I tend to side with the professor on this point – something can still be historically accurate and be considered sexist by today’s standards. The latter doesn’t mean that things didn’t go down that way. Still, there are no rape scenes in this book (which is fine with me) but the author was able to acknowledge the likelihood of such occurrences via this plot device.
The New Christians and the hidden Jewish faith was very intriguing. In my ignorance, I had assumed that many European Jews had to hide (or at least curtail) their faith during the Inquisition until either they moved out of harm’s way or until the Inquisition passed (years? decades?). I did not think that generations would keep their Jewish faith a secret. The Inquisition was not officially abolished until 1834! So, plenty to learn here in a fascinating historical fiction. This book was both entertaining and educational – a keeper on my shelf!
Is it too much to hope for another Alegra/Professor Harold historical adventure? I hope not!
Narration: Christina Cox was an excellent pick for this audiobook. There are plenty of Spanish words and Spanish-speaking characters. Her Spanish accent was excellent with the rapid fire Spanish that I am use to and none of the over enunciated silliness that comes with non-Spanish speakers. She also did a great job with the Guzman women – they each had distinct voices and yet sounded similar enough to be related. She also had a variety of voices for the male characters. I especially liked her voice for a fired up Alegra.