Synopses & Reviews
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.)
"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
"[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
"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." Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World
"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
"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.
Following her National Book Critics Circle and Los Angeles Times Book Award-nominated, bestselling debut, Brick Lane, Monica Ali's splendid Alentejo Blue "rewards readers with characters who etch themselves into one's memory" (People).
Set in a small Portuguese village, Alentejo Blue is a story of displacement and modernization told through the lives of the locals and of people who are just passing through. The residents of Mamarrosa whose ancestors occupy the graveyards are restless and struggle to make a living. They watch as tourists and expats move in.
Monica Ali's characters are profoundly sympathetic. Her understanding of their dreams, desires, and disappointments is rare and moving. Alentejo Blue is evidence that Monica Ali is one of the most gifted voices of her generation.
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.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion:
1. The stories in Alentejo Blue are linked by location and characters. Which story did you find the most compelling and why?
2. Vasco has one of the most consistent presences throughout the book: his story is told either through his own voice or by those who visit his café. Discuss him and how he and his café set a framework for the book.
3. In the book an "expatriot" is described as someone who has exiled oneself, or separated oneself from their fatherland. Which characters do you consider to be expatriots? Discuss the writer Stanton and the Potts family. Discuss Theresa and her impending move to London and her separation from her homeland.
4. Monica Ali demystifies and demythologizes Portugal in this book. Once known as the country that spearheaded the exploration of the world and undertook the Age of Discovery, Portugal's cultural influences include Roman, Spanish, Celtic, and Moorish influences, which provide it with its rich cultural heritage. Yet, Ali depicts Mamarossa as a tough and hardscrabble town, hardly inviting for tourists. Discuss the couple - The Mowatts - who are on holiday in Mamarossa. How does their experience make you view Portugal.
5. Throughout the book there is an undercurrent of immorality-from the petty thievery of Ruby Potts to the adulterous affair of Stanton and Chrissie Potts to the small lies that the characters tell each other. What other indiscretions are revealed? Discuss how these indiscretions set the tone for the book.
6. One of the most interesting relationships in Alentejo Blue is the friendship that Stanton shares with Ray Potts. Why does Stanton allow Ray to loiter and what do you think attracts the boy to Stanton?
7. Describe the relationship of the Potts family to the other characters in the book. Why do you think the Potts's play such a central role in Alentejo Blue?
8. Discuss the significance of sex and sexuality in Alentejo Blue. How does the unromantic and stark portrait of sex and sexuality relate to the book's main themes, particularly that of belonging?
9. Who, if anyone, do you feel is the central or anchoring presence in Alentejo Blue?
10. The last story takes place in Vasco's café and envelops the entire community. What is the importance of ending the book with this story? Discuss community as it relates to your own life and neighborhood.
11. How does Alentejo Blue compare to Ali's first novel Brick Lane? What themes do they have in common?
ENHANCING YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Visit Portugal's website to learn more about the country and its history: http://www.portugal.org/index.shtml
2. Learn more about Monica Ali on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monica_Ali
Want to read more on travel and self-discovery through travel?
A Short Trip in the Alentejo by Robert and Mary Wilson
Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mays
Andorra, a Novel by Peter Cameron
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik