"The Infatuations": A perfect couple, separated by murder

The best way to read Javier Marias' tale of the tangled lives and crimes of dreamy city-dwellers is on foot

Published September 5, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

The reading of audiobooks, like the reading of print books, always happens in particular places, and some places are better for some books than others. Certain books are better read in hammocks or on beach towels, while others require an upright chair, a desk and a pencil in hand. When it comes to audiobooks, where you listen to them -- or when -- can enhance or detract from your ability to appreciate a particular book's literary flavor.

I don't commute, so my driving audiobooks are all selected for long trips; Victorian novels, especially Trollope, are my preference in such cases. Novels full of action are great for the gym, where you can burn off some of the tension on a cardio machine. Poetry and fairy tales are the only genres I'll listen to in bed because if I drift off to sleep, I don't mind having to go back over the bits I missed. And I've just discovered what must be the ideal audiobook for long, unhurried walks in the balmy nights of late summer: Javier Marías' "The Infatuations."

Marías is a famous author in his native Spain and the rest of Europe, but his readership here has been limited to the cognoscenti. For this reason, you may have stumbled across earnestly "selling" reviews of "The Infatuations" in American publications; writers are always trying to persuade readers that writers' writers are also readers' writers. For this reason, some reviewers have claimed that this novel "can be read as a thriller," which is a shameless lie. Anyone who wants to read a thriller will soon become exasperated with "The Infatuations," even if the story does involve a crime and its discovery.

The novel's main character, a book editor named Maria, breakfasts in the same Madrid cafe every morning before work. She has grown accustomed to seeing a handsome couple at a nearby table, a pair in early middle age who strike her as "perfect" in their affection and rapport. She has never spoken to them, but when she learns that the husband has been stabbed to death by a madman in an otherwise tranquil part of the city, she approaches the wife to offer her sympathy. Through the wife, Luisa, she meets the murdered man's best friend, Javier, with whom Maria begins an affair. She falls for him, but he's pining for Luisa, and waiting for her to recover from her grief. Eventually, Maria overhears a conversation that suggests the husband's death is not what it seems.

All of the characters in "The Infatuations" are extravagantly ruminative. Their conversations often take the form of monologues in which cascades of clauses overflow the boundaries of any straightforward narration and spill into digressions, conjecture, supposition, speculation. They tend to all sound the same, that is, like Maria herself, and the reader may sometimes suspect her of having imagined the whole thing.

Maria and Javier often discuss a Balzac novel in which a distinguished soldier thought to have been killed in a battle returns years later to his once-loving wife, since remarried, and is made to feel like a superfluous nuisance. "Fiction has the ability to show us what we don't know and what doesn't happen," Javier explains, "and in this case, it allows us to imagine the feelings of a dead man who finds himself obliged to come back, and shows us why the dead shouldn't come back." Like Maria, he thinks obsessively about what might yet happen or what almost happened or what shouldn't happen, and like Maria he is preoccupied with the effect of time on our emotions.

A person who once seemed essential to our happiness or to our very existence can fade from that prominence and become a mere aspect of our past. A woman who once described herself as a "widow" -- defining her identity by the death of her husband -- will, after the years pass, say instead, "I lost my first husband." Her love was no less sincere for having faded, but fade it must. Everyone in this book is pining for somebody else: Luisa for her dead husband, Javier for Luisa, Maria for Javier, and a boyfriend Maria has been stringing along for Maria herself. They get involved with substitutes for the objects of their desires or with second choices, people who could themselves, in time, become something more.

There are some readers who'll find this insufferable, and Marías' reviewers do him no favors by leading such readers to believe that they'll find a lively plot in "The Infatuations." The novel is more likely to appeal to lovers of Proust or even David Foster Wallace, readers who like to see a master stylist tease out the intricacies of thoughts and feelings that few of us are able to fully articulate. Justine Eyre reads Margaret Jull Costa's fluid translation in a husky, musing half-murmur, the cadences of her voice rocking up and down, curling in on themselves and then outward again, so that Marías' sentences seemed to be unfolding in your own head.

These are the sort of thoughts people have when they're walking alone on a pleasant evening, their minds idly catching on a passing detail then letting it go again. To listen to Eyre reading this novel while meandering through the less raucous streets of Manhattan, past people congregating on their front steps or chatting in sidewalk cafes like the one Maria frequents or gathering on the benches of tiny parks, felt like the ideal match. "The Infatuations" requires an ambling frame of mind, and once the feet start wandering, the head is only too happy to follow.

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By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Audiobooks Fiction Javier Marias Spain The Infatuations The Listener