This historical novel of the beginnings and rise of popularity of the tango could have been a conventional tale of a character's journey from poverty to - if not riches - at least comfort and security, but it is much more than that.
The character at the center of the story starts as a teenage girl in the village of Alazzano in Italy. Her name is Leda, like the swan. She comes from a poor but respectable family. Her father is a consummate violin player and he teaches Leda's older brother to play. Leda wants to learn also but women are not allowed to play the violin. Women are not allowed to do many things in early 20th century Italian villages.
Nevertheless, Leda watches the lessons and learns the fingering of the instrument and all the motions of playing even if she is not allowed to handle it.
Leda is pledged to marry her cousin, Dante. Dante emigrates to the New World, to Argentina, to make a new life. Argentina, at this time, has an open door policy for immigrants from Europe, at least partially to overcome the population of descendants of African slaves who threaten to become a majority in the country.
In time, Leda is married by proxy to Dante and leaves home on a voyage to Argentina to join him. Before she leaves, her father gives her the family violin as a present, he says, for Dante.
Leda arrives in Buenos Aires to learn tragic news: Dante has been killed, shot by the police in a labor demonstration. She is on her own in a strange city where she knows no one. How will this naive 17-year-old survive?
She settles down in the crowded conventillo where Dante had lived, inhabiting his old room. She finds kindness among the other residents of the conventillo. She begins sewing with some of the women there in order to make enough money to live. Sewing is one of the few jobs respectable women could do. Other than that their options were to become a whore and earn their living on their backs or to find a man and get married and depend on him to provide.
Leda soon learned that sewing would not earn her enough money to truly live independently. She had to make another plan.
Since a woman was not allowed to work at a job that would support herself, Leda decides to be a man! She will become Dante, taking her late husband's name and wearing his clothes. She is a tall, slender woman which makes her gender-bending more feasible and more believable.
She abandons the conventillo where they know her, finds a room in another one and then a job in a cigarette factory. But all the time what she really longs to do is play the violin.
The tango phenomenon is just reaching its peak at this time and musical groups all over Buenos Aires play that music at cabarets and nightclubs, feeding the frenzy. If only Leda/Dante could find a way to become a part of such a group...
How she reaches that goal and what happens afterward make up the critical part of this story. It gives the novel a depth that it would not otherwise have and allows the author to explore the role of gender and the many ways that women were kept "in their place" and not allowed to be full participants in society. And though things have improved somewhat in the last hundred years, we still see these same attitudes and these same efforts to stifle women today.
There is also a secondary plot involving Leda's childhood friend, Cora, Dante's sister. The tentacles of this sad story reach out through a community that failed Cora and that continued to deny what happened to her, and all the way to Buenos Aires and later Montevideo where Leda/Dante finally understands what she saw in Alazzano as a twelve year old child. It is a tragedy that is all too familiar.
I found this entire story very affecting, very moving. I was on tenterhooks, fearing the worst for Leda/Dante throughout, but, in fact, though bad things happened, in the end s/he was able to live the life s/he chose - as a man. What a relief!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars