Atria Books, June 7, 2016.
What We Become is the epic tale of the love affair between a wealthy, high society woman, Mecha, and a clever thief and con man, Max. In 1928, they meet on a cruise ship heading to Buenos Aires – Max is a charming employee of the cruise line, hired to dance with the single female passengers. Mecha is travelling with her husband, but he likes to watch while she dances the tango with Max. Mecha’s husband is a composer, and he is intrigued by Max’s descriptions of the old school tango, found in the slums of Buenos Aires – he arranged for the three of them to travel together, creating a bond of intimacy between all three.
Almost a decade later, in 1937, Max and Mecha meet again on the French Riviera. Mecha’s husband has been killed, and she is living a high life with her wealthy, powerful friends. Max has been hired to steal secret documents from one of Mecha’s acquaintances, although even he does not understand the potential repercussions of his actions.
The two meet again in the present, 1966. Mecha is the mother of a chess champion, who is competing in an important match against the current Russian champion. Max finds himself involved in confrontations with Russian gangsters and spies as he enters Mecha’s life for a third time. Even in old age, Max is cocky and confident, able to con his way through any circumstance. His world is cinematic like an old black and white movie, and he carouses through life as a vaudeville character. Max and Mecha’s relationship is romantic in a similarly old-fashioned film kind of way – they fall instantly in love, but there is no depth to their feelings.
The novel bounces through time, jumping from one meeting to another. The disjointed temporality is unsettling, but it does show causation between each time period, and expose why things happened the way they did between Mecha and Max. Max compares his relationship with Mecha to an adjourned chess game, in which both players are constantly second-guessing their next move. Meanwhile, Max seems uncertain about whether he actually loves Mecha at all – he tells her, “I love you. I think. And yet love has nothing to do with all this.” (p. 429) This is the most romantic declaration in the book, so don’t expect more from withholding Max.
The strength of What We Become is in its detailed descriptions of lush settings and rich, elegant parties. It is the glamorous luxury of old Hollywood combined with the excitement of exotic locales. Lifestyles of the rich and famous are contrasted with the slums of Buenos Aires and violent political situations in which Mecha’s husband is conveniently killed. The structure of the novel is elegant, but its actual story is superficial – Max and Mecha are pawns in Perez-Reverte’s chess game. They are two very flawed, troubled characters who spend their lives searching for love. While they make a connection immediately, they are unable to trust and therefore cannot make their relationship work over time.
I was asked by the publisher to compare What We Become with another forthcoming novel: Midge Raymond’s My Last Continent. Aside from the obvious (near-identical covers, cruise ship settings, characters named Keller), the two books are more different than similar. Both involve intense love affairs that develop from sporadic meetings over the course of many years – Deb and Keller in My Last Continent, and Max and Mecha in What We Become. When they are reunited in the present, both couples are faced with a climactic event that shakes their relationship to its core. For Deb and Keller, it makes them stronger – their love is stripped to the basics and they learn what really matters in life. For Max and Mecha, current circumstances pull them apart, and they realize that their love may have been based on excitement and danger all along, with no real basis. And while both novels are large in scope, My Last Continent also delves into the minutiae of life, the details that make a real love story. In contrast, What We Become is epic in scale, but it doesn’t reach into the souls of its main characters in quite the same way. Both novels were strong, and I recommend both for summer reading, but for me, My Last Continent was a much more enjoyable read that I connected with on a deeper level.
I received this novel from Atria/Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.