The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha

I’d requested this book from the library so long ago, that I forgot all about it. So when the notice came that The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao was ready for pick up, I was confused.  What was this book and why had I requested it?  But, just look at that fun cover.   I gamely brought it home, opened it up and was soon immersed.

The author is a Brazilian journalist and her deft writing (and the excellent translation) take us from 1880 through 1960’s Brazil.

Come with me for a romp to 1940’s Rio de Janeiro, a with an extended cast of wonderfully drawn family and neighbors.

Euridice reluctantly ends up marrying Antenor, a successful banker who dreams of climbing the corporate ladder. Their marriage struggles from the beginning when, on their wedding night, it appears (no blood on the sheets) that Euridice may have not been a virgin. Despite his wife’s protests that his claims are false, Antenor has bouts of depression and drinking which are called ‘Nights of Whiskey and Weeping’.  Ms. Batalha somehow  makes this dysfunction slyly amusing, as Euridice gamely brings him handkerchiefs and fresh glassware.

Euridice wants nothing more that to maintain a perfect family life for her two children and husband. But soon our smart and creative Euridice, chafes at the role of obedient housewife.  Bored, she starts cooking elaborate meals for her less than appreciative husband and children. She shops high and low for the necessary ingredients and spices, only to have her meals tossed in the garbage. She is continuously ridiculed by the town gossip, (a wonderfully cranky character) and while her neighbors comment on the wonderful aromas coming from her kitchen, they gossip about the amount of money she spends on food.

Despite the lack of praise, she knows her recipes are good and copies them into a notebook.  Euridice approaches her husband with idea of publishing a cookbook, but Antenor cruelly shoots down the idea: “Stop kidding around, woman. Who buys a book written by a housewife?“

She rationalizes her lot in life and spends her time just sitting, staring at the bookcase:

…she knew, [he] was a good husband. Antenor never disappeared for days and never lifted a hand to her. He brought in a good salary, complained very little, and conversed with the children.

Euridice rediscovers her creativity through the purchase of a sewing machine and becomes a coveted seamstress — styling beautiful and perfectly fitted dresses for the women in the neighborhood. The house is soon full of beautiful fabric, happy women, a helper seamstress, and laughter.  All carefully picked up and packed away before her husband arrives home for dinner.

But again, her ambitions are squashed when Antenor hears about her ventures from — guess who – the neighborhood gossip.  He shuts down her thriving business, claiming it unseemly for her to be sewing for money when he brings home more than enough for all her needs. He fears that the news his wife is working will limit his upward mobility at the bank.

Ms. Batalha takes us back in time and through the family history and we realize that Euridice’s dreams and ambitions have always taken a second role to her obligations.  Her life has been a string of unfulfilled dreams.  When her older, beautiful sister Guida elopes with an unsuitable man, at her parents insistence, Euridice turns her back on a potential musical career and takes on her obligation of dutiful and obedient daughter.  Thus the title– The Invisible Life of Euridice, or as the author puts it — ‘The Side of Euridice that Didn’t Want Euridice to Be Euridice’.

Back in Rio, Guida, the long-lost sister suddenly returns leaving her disastrous marriage, and with her own tale of survival and abuse.  Even  living as a a caretaker for an ailing, toothless, conniving prostitute.  (I know — where did author get these characters?)  Guida’s story is told with compassion, humor and even more wonderful characters.  Guida soon finds a potential new husband who comes from great wealth.  Just marvel at this passage, how Ms. Batalha captures the family wealth by describing the mother’s upbringing…

Eulalia (mother to Guida’s potential wealthy husband) grew up believing that abundance was a birth-right.  It was normal to have piles of clothes.  Normal to have her shoelaces tied by her nursemaid, normal to feed the fox terrier the pieces of chicken denied to the servants.  The poor existed so she could wear new gloves and not soil her hands distributing alms after Mass.  School existed for her to learn French, and to know hoe to order a croissant in a boulangerie during the family vacations in Paris.  And the soirees in her house existed for her to meet a suitor of her caliber, marry, and give birth to four children, who would be raised by a nursemaid.  Eulalia had more important things to worry about than bringing up her own children — being rich, for example.

Then here’s a mere minor character, who the author perfectly captures in once pithy sentence:

She had short hair, narrow eyes, and an awkward smile, the kind that asks permission to express itself.

Eventually in the 1960s, Euridice is still spending her days staring at the bookcase until one day it dawns on her that she should read those books.  So she does, and then once she’s read all the books in the house —  she reads many more.    Children grown and husband settled in the upper ranks of the bank, Euridice starts writing, busily clacking away at the typewriter and hiding the pages in a desk drawer — the title — ‘The History of Invisibility’.

I’ve fear I made this book sound depressing, but it’s not – really, not at all.  It balances the melancholy with sly humor and is filled to the brim with enough gasp-inducing Latin drama for a telenovela.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao is a thoroughly engaging story  –a story of disastrous, yet, loving families, faithful friendships, and broken hearts all held together by strong, stubborn, beautiful women.

 

I finally remembered that I initially got wind of this of this book on My Life In Books blog.  Go read Susan’s review.

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