A few months ago my wife and I spent a day on Isla Colon—one of Panama’s Bocas del Toro islands in the Caribbean—where three different men asked if I wanted marijuana. When I told them no, they’d ask the obvious follow-up question: coke?
We decided to move to Isla Bastimentos, a smaller island usually described as “away from it all” or, worse, “tranquil.” What this means is that Isla Bastimentos would’ve been quite tranquil indeed if our hotel hadn’t fired up the bandsaw every morning at eight. It also means that there’s not much to do except walk around, swim, and read—which isn’t so bad at all, except that we were out of books, and our hotel’s book exchange specialized in titles containing the word “shopaholic,” James Patterson books, and German-language novels.
So we did some hiking. One morning about an hour into a hike, we saw a sign signifying that we would find a coffee shop just a fifteen minute walk down a small trail. The sign didn’t say anything about the trail just sort of disappearing in the grass, about the creek we had to ford, or about snakes. It also didn’t mention that it would take much more than fifteen minutes. I hadn’t planned for this sort of hike, and I was wearing sandals—good sandals though, Rainbow sandals. But at one point the trail was so steep and muddy that I tore through the strap of my right sandal and had to hobble the rest of the way in the mud and woodchips with one bare foot.
It’s still mystifying why someone would put a coffee shop on top of a hill in a jungle on an island. What’s even more mystifying is that here in the jungle was a coffee shop that wouldn’t be out of place in Seattle. They had organic chocolates, homemade pastries, and honey-mint lemonade—all at Seattle prices.
But the real treasure was the coffee shop’s book exchange. In the past few weeks of our trip I’d only been able to obtain books like Super Freakonomics (interesting enough but strangely forgettable), Jim Cramer’s Confessions of a Street Addict (fascinating in roughly the same way as Dante’s Inferno), and a collection of essays purportedly about Russian literature that actually turned out to be essays about a grad student’s life experiences studying Russian literature (not quite the same thing).
This book exchange on the hill had The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl. But we hadn’t brought any old books with us, and it violates book-exchange rules—really, the only book-exchange rule—to take a book without replacing it. So we hiked down the hill to a small roadless village, where the one store in town sort of miraculously had a limited selection of sandals. I bought a nice pair of size-ten Aguila sandals for $2.50, which later turned out to be a women’s size ten with a subtle pink-and-green color scheme.
A few days later we gathered our mediocre books and again hiked up to the coffee shop on the hill. My Aguila women’s sandals held up quite nicely. I traded my book of grad-lit essays for Tom Sawyer and our no-longer-necessary Costa Rica travel guide for a paperback copy of The Bad Girl, complete with spots of black mold on the lower half of most pages. Since we were in Latin America, it seemed fitting to start with the Latin American book by one of Latin America’s most famous authors.
Mario Vargas Llosa is probably most famous for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. He’s also famous for running for president of Peru in 1990, and also for punching Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the face. Neither of them ever said what the punch was about, but it seems pretty clear why Latin America’s second-greatest novelist would punch Latin America’s greatest novelist in the face.
But the reason Mario Vargas Llosa is famous for any of this in the first place is that he writes great novels. I had read three of Mario Vargas Llosa’s books before—Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Conversation in the Cathedral, and Who Killed Palomino Molero?—and the main thing they had in common is that they were great books set in Peru. So that’s what I expected from The Bad Girl: a good book set in Peru.
The Bad Girl at first seems like a great writer blowing off steam by doing a bit of genre fiction. It’s a romance about a nice but boring guy who falls in love with a flighty girl, a girl who makes him feel alive but is also completely unhinged. Sounds familiar, right? This sort of female character has appeared in enough movies that it’s almost archetypal, and we even have a great name for it, courtesy of the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin: Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Manic Pixie Dream Girls are terrifying. What’s terrifying about MPDGs is that you get the sense you’re supposed to like them, that if you’re a guy you’re supposed to think it’d be pleasant to date them or whatever. Can you imagine being in a long-term romantic relationship with Natalie Portman’s character from Garden State? Terrifying.
But Mario Vargas Llosa is a great writer, and great writers don’t pretend that you should like Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Mario Vargas Llosa doesn’t bully you into feeling a certain way about any of his characters, actually. I still don’t know how I was supposed to feel about the Bad Girl—Mario Vargas Llosa never really reveals his authorial feelings. He just gives a full portrait of the characters, makes them as human and understandable as possible, and then steps back and says: what do you think?
I thought the Bad Girl was an awful person. Just terrible. I didn’t particularly care for her pursuer either. But one of the brilliant things about the book is that the story works even if you despise the characters. Their romance is interesting, and what happens to them is rewarding and realistic, like what would’ve happened if Garden State had covered another forty years and shown what it’d be like if a guy actually tried to hash out a real existence with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Spoiler alert: it wouldn’t be a lifetime of skinny-dipping and stuffed animals.
It turns out that it’s not really fair to classify the Bad Girl as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The key feature of a MPDG is that she isn’t real—she couldn’t exist outside of a fictional world where her only purpose is to buoy a depressed man. And the Bad Girl is real, as terrible as she is, and the romance she’s a part of ends up being much truer and more nuanced than a standard genre story. When a Nobel-caliber author takes a standard romance and gives it Nobel-caliber thought, you get something rare: actual wisdom about how to love another person.
Mario Vargas Llosa won his Nobel Prize “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” Though this seems to describe more political works like Conversation in the Cathedral, it applies just as much to The Bad Girl. Love is a structure of power, one of the oldest ones, and “resistance, revolt, and defeat” is the perfect description of the romance in The Bad Girl—actually, it’s probably the perfect description for a lot of romances. I imagine that The Bad Girl might be helpful to someone else, someone who might need some romantic guidance. So even though we pretty much destroyed the book carrying it across Panama, I’m still going to hand it off to another book exchange, even if they won’t give me anything in return.