The story begins in Lima, 1950. The protagonist, Ricardo Somocurcio, a kid in his twenties, meets a young girl who he believes is Chilean at a party. They begin to see one another, however Lilly “The Chilean Girl” - as Ricardo refers to her - is playing the hard-to-get game. Ricardo is smitten and will do anything to win over the Chilean girl’s affections. A cat and mouse game ensues, then suddenly, without warning, the girl disappears. Turns out Lilly wasn’t from Chile at all, but from the very same Miraflores neighborhood as he. This is the beginning of what would turn out to be a highly tumultuous relationship that will span over the course of 40 years.
Ricardo has dreams of living in Paris. He has no real goal other than that. He works to secure a job at UNESCO as a translator - not something he aspired to do, but it was just what he needed to get his foot in the door to accomplish his lifelong dream. It is now the early 1960s and Ricardo is now living in the city of his dreams, befriending some of the more radical elements of Paris, including a fellow Peruvian who dreams of heading back to his homeland to start a revolution, taking his cue from his heros Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Ricardo has or wants nothing to do with this but through his friend’s association, he meets a young woman who’s ready to join the cause, preparing to go to Cuba for her “revolutionary training.” Although under a new guise, it turns out to be the same girl he was crazy about back in Lima years earlier. Once again, “the Bad Girl” slips through his grasp when he learns that she married a wealthy Frenchman, who also happened to be connected to UNESCO. Though they still maintain a sexual relationship, Ricardo is madly in love with her and continually takes her abuse.
For the rest of the novel we follow Ricardo’s expatriate life as he travels the world due to his work and no matter where he seems to go, the love of his life is there, under yet another assumed name, and the cycle of abuse continues. He’s obsessed with her, unable to remove himself from the spell she casts upon him. And it’s painful to watch Ricardo, who at heart is a really good guy (and often continually ridiculed as such by the love of his life). No matter how badly she treats him, he can’t let go and he continually goes back for more and more abuse.
It is also through Ricardo’s eyes we see his love’s life trajectory, veering off on an extremely destructive path as she continually pursues her dream of living the high life, often using men for her own ends. And it could only end very badly. As a reader - and as a man - you want to see Ricardo finally stand up for himself and stop taking the abuse from this psychologically and emotionally damaged woman but no matter what happens, he cannot let go.
As we watch him go through his life, living through some of the more tumultuous times of the 20th century, I was reminded of the plot line in Winston Groom’s “Forest Gump”, and there are some similarities here, particularly when you compare how Ricardo continues to carry a flame for this one particular woman throughout his life much as Gump did for his beloved “Jenny” as they navigated the upheaval of mid-twentieth century America. Both novels play with coincidences and happenstance and the conclusion of this dysfunctional love story is very similar as well.
Overall, it’s a novel about the danger of obsession and how it can often be confused for “love” since, personally, I couldn’t see anything to love about his woman. Pity her, perhaps. Understanding of her obviously psychological and emotional problems, but I think every man has met a woman like this at least once in their lives, where what they want to see is far different from the reality staring them right in the face. It can be a maddening read as you watch Ricardo put himself through all this, especially over virtually the entire course of his adult life; and as the novel concludes you can’t help ask yourself whether or not it was all worth it. There are other questions you’ll be asking as well and this is what makes this novel the good one that it is. Aside from Vargas Llosa’s wonderful prose, it has a story that will suck you right in, aggravate you at times, but you will never want to get off the ride.