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Alentejo Blue: A Novelby Monica Ali
Synopses & Reviews
Alentejo Blue is the story of a village community in Portugal, told through the lives of men and women whose families have lived there for generations and some who are passing through. For Teresa, a beautiful girl not yet twenty, Mamarrosa is a place from which to escape. For the dysfunctional Potts family, it is a way of running from trouble (though not eluding it). Vasco, a cafe owner who has never recovered from the death of his American wife, clings to a notion that his years away from the village, in the States, make him superior. One English tourist fantasizes about making a new life in Mamarrosa; for her compatriots, a young engaged couple, Mamarrosa is where their dreams fall apart.
At the opening of Alentejo Blue, an old man reflects on his long and troubled life in this seemingly tranquil place, and anticipates the homecoming of Marco Afonso Rodrigues, the prodigal son of the village and a symbol of the now fast-changing world. When Marco does finally return, villagers, tourists, and expatriates are brought together, and their jealousies and disappointments inevitably collide.
"Ali's 2003 debut, Brick Lane, was a brilliant family saga told largely from within a Bangladeshi woman's apartment on London's ramshackle East End. Ali, who was born in Dhaka and grew up in London, sets her sophomore effort in a similarly struggling community, the rural Alentejo region of Portugal, where cork prices are falling, the region is still healing after the brutal Salazar regime and the locals don't quite care to cater to tourists. But where Brick Lane was quietly symphonic, this blues-like novel is more of a dirge: Joo, in old age, comes upon his old friend (and sometime lover), Rui, hanging from a tree, his Communist dreams dashed; the English Potts family scrapes by as indolents-in-exile; the writer Stanton, also British, works away on a second-rate literary biography; tavern-keeper Vasco sadly and silently reminisces about his marriage to an American, Lili; and young Teresa is preparing to leave the village for an uncertain future 'outside.' The simultaneous sense of stasis and great change is Ali's forte, and her characters' perceptions are sharp. But when anyone other than the Brits speak, it's as if Ali is trying to ventriloquize an incompletely acquired dialect. The characters' lives generate little tension, much like the pinball machine in Vasco's cafe that Stanton plays badly. (June 20)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Monica Ali's debut, the sensitive, subtly witty 'Brick Lane,' was one of the best novels of 2003. Now, with 'Alentejo Blue,' she's produced one of the best books of 1926. This spare, unrelentingly depressing story about several lost generations might have delighted Gertrude Stein and made Hemingway green with envy, but whether readers will want to subject themselves to it now seems doubtful. Searching... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) for this title online, don't be surprised if you get a pop-up ad for Prozac. 'Alentejo Blue' is a collection of loosely connected short stories about the alienated, bored, frustrated people who live in or pass through a small village in the vast southern plains of Portugal. Alentejo offers little more than a convenience store and a bar, a clean, well-lighted place where patrons can recite old gossip and nurse their ennui. The new Internet cafe is open but has no working connection, a clever symbol of the town's disconnect from the modern world and the closest thing we get to humor in this book. These sad characters introduce themselves a few at a time. Stanton, a chronically blocked writer, has come to Alentejo to finish his novel but suffers deeply from 'estrangeiro malaise.' 'It was hopeless,' he thinks. 'It was like deciding to commit suicide and trying to drown with your face in a washbasin.' Desperate for some distraction, against his better judgment he befriends a dissipated English family living on a derelict farm. During his first visit, he has sex with the scabby mother on the side of an outbuilding. Who could resist the 'brandy and a sharp tang of vomit' in her mouth? Later, he has sex with her 16-year-old daughter, but he feels really bad about it, which you can sense in this typical passage of deeply anguished, extraneous detail: 'Stanton lay back on the bed. He looked at his toenails, ingrained with dirt, the right big toenail chipped and peeling away at the corner, the nail on the little toe black, though he had not noticed banging it. He lay there gazing at his feet until darkness took them and the cicadas made audible his thoughts: insistent, streaming, unintelligible.' Toward the end, 'Stanton stood there and waited for something to happen and nothing happened at all,' which I can confirm. In another story, a very large man self-conscious about his 'groinsweat' — an image I'm still trying to blot out — wonders if he should eat a piece of cake. Even if you don't recall Prufrock hesitating over that peach, you can't miss the theme in this excruciatingly dreary description of a man haunted by regrets, grief and indecision. The young people in town don't fare any better. Little Jay — named after his father's marijuana — has nothing to do but wander around, wondering if he should start a forest fire. Alas, he doesn't. Meanwhile, his sister annoys the local whores by giving it away for free. But even that fails to spark any flames. A couple of the stories — about wives trapped in dead marriages — are narrated in the first person, which promises a little more intimacy, but the monologues these women deliver are so brittle and alienated that you can't help feeling relieved when their depression finally silences them. They utter deeply affected statements, jam-packed with emotional pain. It's a method that seems dated and highlights the artifice of the form: 'As soon as Jay left,' his mother tells us, 'I wanted him to come back. I ran through the mud in my socks, Michelle's socks, but I couldn't make him hear me. Sometimes I think I can't really exist. I dig my nails into my skin to see if I'm really there, I'm doing it now, and it's good when the blood comes because that proves something, and you can't just believe, you have to have proof.' One of the few truly engaging stories describes Teresa, a 20-year-old woman thrilled about the prospect of going to London to work as an au pair. Here, finally, we get some movement, some tension and development — the rising and thwarting of her desire. She dreads having to tell her boyfriend about her plans, and she knows her mother will be ruined by the news. Ali sets up the girl's enthusiasm to look especially naive, but it's still a powerful story, made more effective by the swooning trajectory of its plot. For the most part, though, that movement — even if heavily predetermined — is far too rare here. Again and again, 'Alentejo Blue' laments the failure of these people to connect with anyone, but ultimately the stories offer us little more than a series of heavy sighs. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Using luminous, heartfelt language, the award-winning Ali weaves a tapestry of human frailty....Overall, the novel compares favorably with Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter as a study of collective despair and frustrated hopes." Library Journal
"The author roams through many voices and perspectives, but the characterizations are superficial. The drastic change of scene, though maybe necessary for artistic growth, has left Ali oddly adrift." Kirkus Reviews
"Poetic, understated, and somber...the grace of Ali's words is dazzling." Time Out New York
"This is Ali's more ambitious and accomplished novel....These stories are absorbing and beautiful; they, and the characters they give voice to, are enmeshed in intricate and surprising ways." Baltimore Sun
"[A] little gem of a story....Ali's narrative shines when telling the story of Eileen, a menopausal tourist on holiday with her emotionally absent husband." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"The novel isn't a failed experiment, but it is a self-conscious one....Ali's characters are trapped in their own heads. To let them loose into the dusty streets of Mamarrosa to act and interact, rather than silently stew, would be a liberation for them — and perhaps for their author." Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
"Alentejo Blue is sleepy and disconnected, as are its characters....Ali took a risk in trying something so different, but it just seems her heart wasn't in it." Rocky Mountain News
"A master of concision and suggestion, the author says volumes about characters and situations by what she does not say. It does indeed take a village — in this case, to show the fundamental universality of all human predicaments." Booklist
"In Alentejo Blue, the characters in dialogue with themselves matter more than their interactions with one another. And, despite the dramatic details of affairs and a criminal abortion, characters matter more than the plot." Philadelphia Inquirer
From the award-winning bestselling author of Brick Lane, compelling, gorgeously written stories set in Portugal, linked by character and place — Ali introduces us to a new culture as she did in her first novel.
About the Author
Monica Ali was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and grew up in England. She has been named by Granta as one of the twenty best young British novelists. Brick Lane won Barnes & Noble's Discover Award for New Writers and Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award. It was translated into thirty languages. She lives in London with her husband and two children.
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