I like a book that transports me, that takes me out of myself and drops me into a different time and place. Marian Izaguirre’s La vida cuando era nuestra swept me up and carried me away, unresisting, anxious to see where her story would take me.
More than a story within a story, this is a book within a book. One of them begins at the dawn of the twentieth century and unfolds into the present. The other is set in Madrid in the early 1950s and flashes back to the Spanish Civil War. Izaguirre is a skillful raconteur, and both narratives come together smoothly in an ending that is also a beginning.
Rose Tomlin is English; when we meet her, in 1951, she is living in Madrid. Lola and Matías run a hole-in-the-wall second-hand bookstore in a shabby part of town. As the author tells the couple’s story, she sketches a bleak view of the Civil War (1936–39) that devastated Spain and scarred her people forever. It also attracted a generation of young idealists from many countries; men and women who came to Spain to fight for democracy, sometimes to die for it. Izaguirre’s writing is nuanced and—as joy and tragedy come and go—captures the bliss of happiness and the stillness of grief in scenes that, I hope, will one day be in the US movie version of this enthralling saga of mystery, history, and love.
The fate of the three protagonists is intertwined as Rose becomes a regular at the bookstore. She is almost old enough to be Lola’s mother, and the two soon become friends and confidants; so much so that Lola tells her a secret she has never told anyone else. Matías is suspicious about the English novels that mysteriously appear on his shelves, only to be snapped up by their enigmatic new customer a few days later. Clearly made in the image of her creator, Rose loves books. She tells Lola that “books can sometimes feel like a life preserver.” Stripped of everything they had and consigned to poverty for being on the wrong side in the war, Matías and Lola exist on a shoestring but are hopelessly in love. They live in a poky little apartment and, here again, I’d look forward to a film version of their beautifully written scenes of domesticity and intimacy. In one close-up, Lola is wistful. “I miss the life we had when it was ours” she says, giving the book its title.
The book within the book is Rose’s story, with all its twists and turns. She spends her first ten years in the care of a farmer and his wife in the French countryside. Then she moves to England to live with her family, and we are treated to a finely observed picture of the English landed aristocracy and its complicated rituals and morals in the years just before and after the First World War. The characters are all sharply and convincingly drawn. One of them, Frances, is so vivid I can still see her in my mind’s eye. She is a member of Rose’s family, certainly, but what exactly is their true relationship? Frances takes Rose to Paris and they slip into the city’s wild 1920s nightlife. Bar-hopping until all hours with a bohemian crowd, looking for cool, dark places where they can drink Manhattans and dance. And talk to their friends: writers, poets, artists—the American diaspora that descended on Paris after the war and recorded the frantic energy of their expat lives in stories, novels, and paintings. Some of them later joined the International Brigade and fought in the Spanish Civil War. Which is how Rose, who has finally found the man she truly loves, winds up in Spain when the war is supposedly over, though sadly not everyone respects the peace.
Rose has found joy with Henry, who is a translator and works at home. The scenes of their life together in England and in Paris ring absolutely true and convey a profound sense of happiness—which Rose has learned is one of the few things that money can’t buy. She has also learned that “being old is almost as liberating as being rich.” They live a simple, aesthetic life, surrounded by books and music. The author deftly hints at what is yet to come in little snippets, tantalizing previews that stoke my desire to know what happens next.