A taste of ex-patriot life in South America, an espionage story woven into the plot, and one woman’s journey from dependency to strength…this is the essence of Eucalyptus and Green Parrots. The author knows her subject matter intimately, as she descends from a long line of expatriate Americans (and was one), including a grandmother who followed her husband to the same country the book is set in.
Set in Argentina, 1943, the novel covers a well-trodden historical period in fiction from an angle that I have not seen before, which is one of the reasons I accepted this book for review. The novel is composed of a compelling mixture of themes: Argentina’s supposedly neutral role in the Second World War; the culture of corruption in Argentina’s police system; and the main theme–an American woman’s limited choices and domestic role in the 1940s, as well as her utter dependence on men for survival.
Virginia, the main character, bounces between two worlds: the constricting life of her family in Texas, who run a poultry factory and want her to return to join them in this messy business, and her life with her husband Clem, with its privileged perks in an expatriate community in Buenos Aires. The couple, with their young daughter Lucy, may not be as financially well off as their friends, but can afford such luxuries as live-in help and summer beach vacations to escape the city heat.
But when Clem, who ultimately bows to Virginia’s insistence that he not enlist for the war effort, becomes involved in more clandestine wartime activities unbeknownst to Virginia, her comfortable way of life in Argentina is threatened.
Eucalyptus and Green Parrots is an engaging story, despite the lack of sympathy this reader felt for Virginia’s character. She seems rather self-absorbed and spoiled and is a portrait of female helplessness and dependence who lacks ambition and drive. Virginia has a strong fear of being alone, and she speaks of being “rescued” from a life of drudgery by marriage. She is also outspoken about her resentment of having to take care of her daughter alone when she fires the nanny and her husband is off on one of his “adventures.” She thinks it selfish of her husband to consider joining the military or performing patriotic acts that could put him in danger during the war. Perhaps this twenty-first-century reader viewed Virginia’s attitude as “selfish” from her current-day perspective, but it may very well be that the character is meant to be an example of the “typical” American woman of the time.
The emotion (albeit strongly negative at first) this reader felt for Virginia, however, is due to the author’s talent for strong characterization; I could have been left completely untouched and uncaring, but the experience of disliking Virginia made my eventual capitulation to sympathy quite dramatic. Her circumstances become such that she is forced to grow up and take initiative eventually, and for that, I have admiration.
The writing is clear and readable, in fact, once I began the book, it gripped me through to the final page. The portrayal of Buenos Aires and the beach vacation pensión were as brightly descriptive as the multicolored parrots of the title of the book. However, one major character, Renaldo, who is an integral part of the story, disappears toward the end of the book, never to be heard from again! He is an intriguing individual who wants a relationship with Virginia, and this reader was left frustrated by the lack of closure!
One problem with the book, however, is the confusion that occasionally arises when the reader is carried from the present to the flashback scenes and back again; the two become blurry and the separation in time is difficult for the reader to distinguish. Also, the title and cover are a bit too simplistic to catch the reader’s immediate attention on a crowded bookshelf. A more complex and colorful cover would help as well as a more catchy title—one cannot guess what the themes of the book are from either the title or the cover. Changing those elements would add the right packaging to an engaging and absorbing story.
Eucalyptus and Green Parrots by Lori Eaton, self-published, pb, 250 pp, $8.99 (amazon), 978-0985161408 and $2.99 (kindle), B007DKNSK4.