By Heather A.
4 out of 5 stars ★★★★☆
Baja California, 1979. Viridiana spends her days watching the dead sharks piled beside the seashore, as the fishermen pull their nets. There is nothing else to do, nothing else to watch, under the harsh sun. She’s bored. Terribly bored. Yet her head is filled with dreams of Hollywood films, of romance, of a future beyond the drab town where her only option is to marry and have children.
Three wealthy American tourists arrive for the summer, and Viridiana is magnetized. She immediately becomes entwined in the glamorous foreigners’ lives. They offer excitement, and perhaps an escape from the promise of a humdrum future.
When one of them dies, Viridiana lies to protect her friends. Soon enough, someone’s asking questions, and Viridiana has some of her own about the identity of her new acquaintances. Sharks may be dangerous, but there are worse predators nearby, ready to devour a naïve young woman who is quickly being tangled in a web of deceit.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
SMG is on fire! Three books publishing in less than a year! Fantasy novel Gods of Jade and Shadow was published July 2019, this mystery novel publishes in February 2020, and another horror novel called Mexican Gothic book comes out in June 2020 (dying to get my hands on this)! Ever since I read Signal to Noise I’ve appreciated her work and voice.
*small spoilers ahead*
This book is a departure from the Author’s normal fantasy-inspired worlds. It’s set in 1970’s Baja, Mexico, in a town called Desengaño (translates to disillusion). It’s a small fishing village known for the killing and selling of shark meat and parts (hello, cover inspo). The novel is told from the perspective of Viridiana — no nickname. She’s a young woman who is trying to figure out what she wants to do for the rest of her life that doesn’t involve staying in town and working at her mother’s store. The plot kicks off when a wealthy American family comes to town; Ambrose and his wife Daisy, and Daisy’s brother Gregory are staying during the off season so that Ambrose can write his autobiography or novel or whatever strikes his fancy. Ambrose hires Viridiana at the recommendation of a friend of a friend (a Dutch man who lives in town named Reynier, who used to be a friend of Viridiana’s father before her father moved away. Reynier taught Viridiana multiple languages and has been a companion to her). Viridiana is there to help Ambrose write, help the family get things from town, and translate with the locals. A perk of the job is that she is allowed to live with the family, which she sees value in because her mother’s house is not very welcoming (many half-siblings, rude step-father, mother nagging about Viridiana’s life).
The family turns out to be a bit more excitement than Viridiana expected. Ambrose has violent outbursts mostly directed towards his wife, Daisy plays hot and cold with her conversations with Viridiana, and Gregory starts a sexual relationship with Viridiana, though, notably, they never have sex because Viridiana doesn’t want to end up like her mother. She very quickly gets mixed up with their lives. On the night Ambrose dies, it’s clear that Daisy and Gregory are covering it up. Because of her naivety, Viridiana speaks with the cops and covers for Daisy and Gregory when they recount what happened. When Lawrence, Ambrose’s nephew, arrives to make arrangements for Ambrose’s death he also begins looking into his death and questioning everyone involved because he suspects Daisy killed him to get her payout of $1 million dollars. He earns Viridiana’s trust and she’s able to steer him in another direction. Daisy manipulates Viridiana into making sure she gets her money (otherwise she would acuse Viridiana for the death). The more she covers for Daisy and Gregory, the more she finds out about their past and the trouble they are running from in America.
The coming-of-age theme is the most prevalent in Viridiana’s relationship with Gregory. She quickly accepts his attention as love, and it makes her easily trust him (as with any young relationship, tbh). When the time comes, she chooses to lie for him after Ambrose’s death and is doubly disappointed in him later on when she digs into his past with Daisy. I was so satisfied with the ending here because it’s so justified for their relationship and the plot as a whole.
Another theme is how small this small town is. Viridiana was previously in a relationship with another boy in town and people expected her to marry him and settle down (at the young age of 18), but she resisted and alienated her family and friends because of it. Further, the other translator in town, Alejandro, harasses her after she takes up her friendship with Lawrence. People assume what they want to assume about her and Lawrence, but it’s not the reality. Cleverly, the author flips this trope when Viridiana uses town gossip for her own benefit. When she makes up her mind about right and wrong and her way out, it was smart to use the townspeople as an alibi for her movements. (Sorry this is a bit vauge, but I don’t want to spoil the ending.)
The conclusion was, as I mentioned, extremely satisfying. Viridiana uses Lawrence’s affection towards her as a means to escape the town. I think there’s real feelings there from her, but it’s overshadowed by her deep need to leave because of murder reasons, but also the urge to escape that was addressed at the beginning of the book.
To summarize, I had some frustration in the beginning because I felt that it took too long to get to the murder. I kept trying to guess who was going to die because it went on for quite a few chapters. The characters kept talking about people swimming with sharks, undercurrents drowning townspeople, and other accidental deaths, but we pretty much know right away who the killer is and from there it becomes a cover-up. Overall, I enjoyed how we got to see each characters strengths and weaknesses, and Viridiana’s overall character growth from innocent young woman to empowered personhood. I really recommend this for fans of thrillers like Ruth Ware and Agatha Christie (I get those vibes from the 1970s setting!).