Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Dark Bride.
When telling the story of a romance, particularly one that survives separation, betrayal and a host of other pitfalls, it’s important that the reader want the lovers to be together. All the great literary couples – from Romeo and Juliet to Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy – really seem better together than they are apart.
The lovers at the center of Laura Restrepo’s The Dark Bride, however, aren’t particularly interesting individually or as a team. The book, set in Colombia, tells the story of a whore who goes by the name of Sayonara, from her arrival as a little girl in La Catunga, a barrio for prostitutes. Sayonara enthusiastically joins the ranks of the local women of the night and becomes a sensation over time, until she falls in love with a man who remains out of her reach.
Restrepo tells the story from the viewpoint of a journalist, seeking the story behind a photo she’s discovered of a beautiful, enigmatic woman. Perhaps a bit too enigmatic. Though those who know Sayonara all speak of her bewitching power, but the reader never feels it. More compelling are Todos los Santos, the madam who takes Sayonara in as a young girl and acts as a surrogate mother, and Sacramento, Sayonara’s childhood playmate who develops an obsessive love for her. The story is told mostly through their memories, as they recount Sayonara’s story to the journalist. But
they are, unfortunately, only supporting characters.
As the story progresses, Sayonara falls for Sacramento’s friend and fellow oil worker, Payanes. And that presents another problem with the book. Though Sayonara isn’t the compelling character she needs to be, she’s far more interesting than Payanes, whose whole character arc consists of an obsession with his job and a passion for Sayonara. When Payanes reveals a secret about his life late in the book, it seems to come out of nowhere, and is thus totally unbelievable.
Unfortunately, their romance is at the core of the book, and since it is not compelling, neither is the story. That’s too bad, because Restrepo does sprinkle some nice touches throughout, including Todos los Santos’s penchant for collecting animals (most of whom she names Felipe) and the image of Sayonara traveling with her four younger sisters, each of whom looks vaguely like her. However, lovely imagery isn’t enough to sustain a story if the central characters are duds. The story might have better if it revolved around Todos los Santos, who is a more complex character – knowing the pitfalls of a life in prostitution, and spending her life stepping around them. As it is, the story fails to make a connection. Restrepo leads the reader to believe that the story of Sayonara has become famous in the village, but it’s not likely to linger long in the minds of readers.