Like the author of this blog, I had mixed feelings about the heroine of this story, the eponymous Nancy.
*Dusts off English Literature degree* La tesis de Nancy is an epistolary novel, made up of letters written from Seville by American student Nancy to her cousin Betsy back in the US. If you’re being kind to Nancy, you might say she’s plucky yet innocent and naive, but if you were feeling less charitable, you might describe her as ignorant, pleased with herself, and annoying.
I should start by saying that this was the first book I’ve ever read entirely in Spanish, and the choice was, just maybe, a little ambitious. A lot of the humour centres around the fact that Nancy, a 24-year-old American writing her Ph.D thesis in 1950s Seville, makes a lot of mistakes with her Spanish, leading to all kinds of crazy misunderstandings. While I got that Nancy usually has the wrong end of the stick, I didn’t always fully grasp the full implications of her misunderstandings, which made the reading experience kind of slow and frustrating – not a fault of the book, of course.
The book, being set in Seville, reproduces the characters’ Andalucian dialect, and includes dated 50s slang as well as andalucismos, which despite the explanatory material, further impeded my ability to follow what exactly was going on. As students of Shakespeare will tell you, any joke that has to be explained via a lengthy footnote isn’t really funny.
However, many of Nancy’s malentendidos were obvious, even to me. For example: Nancy’s bad-egg gypsy boyfriend Curro, due to his possessive nature, has her move out of her lodgings and into a flat with a little girl and her mother while he’s gone from Seville for a few days. She’s not supposed to leave the house, and the mother is meant to keep an eye on her as Curro’s worried that his love rival, a young gypsy poet named Quin, will steal Nancy away.
Unlike the other gypsies, Quin is blond and blue-eyed, earning him the nickname el abejorrito rubio (the little blond bumblebee). During the nights of Curro’s absence, an actual bumblebee flies in through the window of the bedroom Nancy shares with the little girl, and in a rather obvious plot twist, Nancy gives the same nickname to her apian visitor as to her blond admirer. Of course, when Curro comes back, the first thing he hears when he checks up on his girlfriend is that el abejorrito rubio has been visiting Nancy every night – and he flies into a jealous rage.
But this is one of the rare scenes where I actually liked Nancy. She’s really cool in a crisis. Curro is about to kill her -the note at the back of the book explains it succinctly: [Curro] tiene un terrible ataque de celos y a punto está de matar a Nancy y de suicidarse. So what does Nancy do? She casually reaches into her handbag and pulls a gun on him she’s brought from home. Apparently, you were allowed to take guns on international flights in the 50s.
Despite Nancy’s rather glaring shortcomings – as well as her superior attitude and lack of self-awareness, she’s nasty about almost everybody, including her rather sweet Dutch friend, Elsa, who she compares to un ratón, una ardilla, un chimpancé, un conejo, un grillo and una yegua – it didn’t escape me that she was a single, admittedly highly privileged, young woman travelling abroad alone in the 1950s. She manages not only to have adventures – including ascending the Giralda on horseback – but also has three boyfriends, as well as a really good time while “researching” her thesis.
I recommend the book to people who, like me, who are fascinated by Spanish language and culture – but unless your Spanish is tip-top, it might be a struggle in places (the novel is also available in English translation). I found myself having to look up a lot of words, making the task more like work than enjoyment. But still – I got there, and no doubt it did my language skills some good. And it’s interesting to read Spanish people’s take on the classic novel – you can see what they’re saying on Goodreads.