Maria Dueñas’ enchanting cross-cultural drama The Heart Has Its Reasons centres on an intelligent woman who reacts to her state of personal flux by jumping at the opportunity for escape. Blanca Perea is a Spanish university professor (as is Dueñas, whose work is translated from her mother tongue) whose husband left her for his pregnant lover a few months earlier. Their two sons, in their early 20s, have already flown the coop.
Of the offers she receives, the University of Santa Cecilia, north of San Francisco, is the most appealing, being the furthest point that beckons. It is also proffers the most mysterious of the advertisements, specifying only that a suitable applicant will be a Spaniard with a PhD in the humanities.
As it transpires, a new foundation is funding a project that involves ordering and assessing the legacy of a late faculty member, one Andres Fontana, whose links to current fellows of the institution are the novel’s concerns.
The most dominant and enigmatic of these associates is Daniel Carter, an American whose journey to Spain as a young man, and whose subsequent immersion in the language and culture, has made him a lionized figure in the Hispanist discipline. His biography mirrors, in reverse, that of Fontana, who immigrated to the United States in 1936 and pursued a career in scholarship. Though he initially intended to evade the Spanish Civil War after escaping the mines of rural Spain for higher education in Madrid, Fontana’s journey proves irreversible and he never again sees his homeland or family.
Fontana’s passion is instead invested, as Blanca parses from a massive collection of papers that presents a task comparable to an archaeological dig, in his studies and teachings, which entwined his path with that of the student Carter. (At times, history is made flesh, such as in a moving passage in which a site linked to the Camino Real is uncovered for the first time.)
Dueñas is an elegant, naturalistic writer who has crafted a story similar in both style and subject matter to Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s 2001 bestseller The Shadow of the Wind. Both novels embed a reverence for literature within a larger plot involving mystery, history, and biography, and illustrate the impossibility of accurately excavating a life.
The tonal richness of The Heart Has Its Reasons is supported by a cast of well-rounded characters who are given to debating principles of the humanities as passionately as sports fans might debate a team selection. Dueñas conveys, with the confidence of the familiar, the strange intimacy of the cloistered university environment, and the ease with which its inhabitants, on a weekend bender examining primary sources, forget there is a world outside.
Blanca seizes the chance to succumb to the lure of academia, and she is not the only one crawling out of emotional wreckage. The story is littered with traces of fractured families and smashed marriages.
As The Heart Has Its Reasons underscores, the dead are gone, and the best we can form of them is a blurry impression – not aided, as Blanca finds, by those who purport to help while frantically interring skeletons of their own. While Fontana lurks spectrally in the background, the story is all about the living, their turmoil, fears, and regrets, and the sacrifices made by those devoted to the preservation of the past.
Previously reviewed on Coast FM
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones