” Desire forces you to see what desire reveals. ” [Part 2, Ch. 5]
“You know when you love someone so much that you try to protect them from the pain you could cause them, out of fear because you know yourself, but the other person only sees the wonderful side. ” [Part 2, Ch. 16]
Set against the maze of Madrid’s congested and contested streets, Learning to Lose revolves around three generations in a family of which each person learns to lose some aspects of their identity. What they have lost, unbeknowst to them, is what lies them together as they come to terms of a lasting human condition. On Sylvia’s sixteenth birthday, her adult life begins with a car accident and a broken leg. Behind the wheels is an Argentine soccer star playing for a Spanish club. He is drawn to her by a need to make amends that slowly evolves into a passionate but strictly discreet love affair. Their drastically different lives—Ariel’s high profile career and media’s scrutiny—threaten to pull them apart.
In her relationship with Ariel, she always had an alternate plan ready in case of catastrophe, an escape plan, an evacuation route like the stewardess pointing to exit rows . . . There was something that told her, all this that you are experiencing will be over tomorrow and you won’t be able to cry about it or tell anyone about it. [Part 3, Ch. 21]
Indeed, after her parents have separated, as passion has faded and all that remains between them is co-habitation, Sylvia takes on a new perspective on love and relationship. She knows it’s best not to wear her heart on the sleeves. Her father Lorenzo, who has murdered his former business partner, becomes involved with an Ecuadoran au pair who longs for commitment. Her grandfather Leandro, swept by a belated erotic awakening, retreats from his wife’s impending death by becoming fraught with an African prostitute for whom he spends his retirement pension down. As desire, which attaches to an object of desire binds one to it, toys with its vulnerable victims, these ordinary people are derailed from their lives in unexpected tangents. Dodging guilt and fearing failure, they make poor decisions and err in ways that are way too familiar and—human. The relatively small scale of their struggle is so believable that it infuses the novel with profundity on love, purity, and redemptive power.
Lorenzo feels pity for his father, a man he once feared for his strictness, his firm convictions, that he later ignored and ever later learned to respect . . . Who am I to judge him? If we could expose people’s miseries, their errors, missteps, crimes, we’d find the most absolute dearth, true indignity. [Part 3, Ch. 19]
Learning to Lose deals with very common themes in contemporary literature: divorce, marriage, parenthood, love, purity, and fame. The novel shines in the superbly etched characterization, bringing forth the most raw and yet humane qualities, even though it embraces their poor decisions, flaws, and failures. In their search for happiness, they aspire to some normality in life, famous or not not, rich or poor.
Being recognized was the most absurd part of his job. . . . it was a pain in the neck when you were trying to lead a normal life. The accident would have been completely different if her wasn’t a celebrity. [Part 1, Ch. 12]
So this isn’t the real world to you? he asks
Being with you, well, honestly, I don’t know. It’s definitely not the normal world. But I like it, you know. It’s more like a dream. [Part 3, Ch. 5]
As they collide and interact under very dramatic circumstances, they come to realize that normality, one that is not prescribed by society with its norms, but dictated by the inner voice of the heart, is the recipe for happiness. In a sense they have to lose what they thought is the most important in order to be happy. As befit to the puny nature of the title, one has to taste loss in order to triumph. The writing pulsates with longing and lust, with an unadorned truthfulness.
608 pp. Paperback with flap. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]