Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Wild Man

The Wild Man by Patricia Nell Warren was good. While I always use BART on my flight out, when I fly back in, I like to avoid the hassle of late night public transportation. The Wild Man was so good, I decided to use the shuttle bus and subway after my flight rather than a cab just so I could continue reading. Believe me, that's a huge endorsement.

The struggle to be free is the overarching theme of The Wild Man. The protagonist, a dashing bullfighter by the name of Antonio is a captive of familial expectations, professional obligations, and the strict gender roles of Spain during the last years of Francisco Franco's rule. Antonio shares the weight of these societal burdens with his twin sister, Josefina, a former marimacho (tomboy) who skirts the edge of propriety with her moderna ways. These forms of captivity are echoed by an entire society held in thrall by fascism and the imprisonment of wild animals for bloody sport.

Antonio begins the story as a well-known bullfighter from an aristocratic family. Though bullfighting is a decidedly blue collar sport, fans have embraced him due to his flair in the ring. I have to say that I am not a fan of bullfighting. Not in the least. However, Patricia Nell Warren's amazing descriptions of the technical and artistic foundations of the sport gave me an appreciation of the tragic beauty of the sport. At first, Antonio is content to satisfy the "Big Hunger" of his desires with furtive encounters in other countries. Then a chance encounter with a peasant named Juan throws Antonio's world into turmoil. From the get go, the powderkeg of their class difference threatens the burgeoning romance as much as their sexual orientation.

Juan is brought to Antonio's under the pretense of tutelage. Juan, his junior by 6 years, will take his place in the ring. Or so the hope is. However, Juan's skills in the ring don't quite fit the plan. Unwilling to be the "kept man" of a landed lord, Juan abruptly breaks off their romance. Antonio isn't so quick to give up and hatches a plan to win Juan back. Usually these moments in romance novels get a shrug from me at the most. But I was honestly not sure of how this would turn out, and my heart was racing as Antonio put his plan into motion.

Antonio's relationship with his twin sister was another cornerstone of the narrative. As young kids, they were inseparable. Climbing trees, riding horses, dreaming of bullfighting... the two twins approached life with a shared devil-may-care attitude. Antonio relished his twin sister's tomboy antics and refused to call her Josefina, preferring José. Their conservative parents resented this bond and took steps to break it. When they were no longer allowed to sleep in the same room, the twins would use the branches of the mulberry tree outside their rooms to sneak around. Eventually their parents severed their immediate connection completely by sending José to convent school and Antonio to military school. Years later, though, both twins discover that their old bond remains.

"Dig your feet in." Those were the words José told Antonio as a kid, when he struggled to keep up with her while climbing trees. Don't give up, you won't fall, trust me. "Dig your feet in" becomes Antonio's battlecry. As the crushing vice of their society begins to threaten their very lives, the twins face the danger together, united once again.

Antonio's struggle to be wild and free, to love the man who stole his heart, opens his eyes to all the other forms of captivity surrounding him. He sees the shackles of feminine propriety forced on his twin sister and the socioeconomic barriers that have hemmed Juan in. But Antonio's growth doesn't end there. He begins to make a connection between his own captivity and that of the bulls he routinely puts to death. The seeds of empathy slowly flourish, leading to a profession that he never would've imagined in his younger days.

I could go on about this story, but I want to leave you with some surprises. One tip, though. Buy the book, but don't read the summary on the back! It gives one major story element away immediately that I truly think would've worked best as a total surprise.

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