What We Become reminds us that we become nostalgic as we get older. Picture an ocean liner out of Europe in the 1920’s. This isn’t a boat holding thousands of people playing in pools all day and gorging themselves at buffets in the evening. It is elegant. People wear furs as they wave from the first-class deck. Dinner is formal, dancing is optional, smoking is compulsory. Max is a ballroom dancer who entertains unaccompanied women, or those whose partners don’t dance. As the book opens he is dancing with Mecha, the beautiful wife of the Spanish composer, Armando de Troye. The stage is set.
Suddenly we learn that Max has survived into his 60s. He is now living in Naples and remembers his years of success as a gigolo, thief and con artist. Whatever he was, he once lived in style: ocean liners, the Riviera, tuxedos, wealthy women. Now he is a chauffeur, wearing a uniform and polishing the chrome on Dr. Hugentobler’s Jaguar. As he drives the good doctor to the ferry, they discuss the latest local news: an international chess contest between the Soviet champion and a young Chilean. As he drives home he sees a man and two women. The older woman is simply and elegantly dressed, sophisticated and familiar. So begins the story that goes back and forth between the first meeting between Max and Mecha and their encounter 36 years later.
The pace of What We Become is languid, the author sets many a scene in great detail. The clothes, the facial expressions, the scents and the sounds. In Buenos Aires, the heat is oppressive, the tango sensual bordering on obscene. His relationship with Mecha begins here as a wild sexual affair. When he leaves her, her necklace goes with him. Later he meets her again among the wealthy inhabitants on the Riviera. The fascists are in control of Italy, fascists and republicans are fighting in Spain, and everyone on the Riviera is living in a world that is coming to an end. Max’s abilities are known to the wrong people and they press him into their services. Mecha’s appearance in Italy over 25 years later is as the mother of that young chess player. In the chess world there is plenty of cheating and spying going on as well.
The book skips back and forth between Max’s old world and the new. He is clearly less comfortable in the new world. Age is a bitch, he is no longer slim and nimble, and while still attractive, his best days are behind him. He also sees Mecha as someone who has clearly aged, still elegant but no longer beautiful. It’s a shallow observation, but it’s all he has to go on. That is not to say that he isn’t still up for a scam. He can still pull off appearances and with his boss out of town, he takes the car and some clothes and emerges at Mecha’s hotel an elegant older gentleman. His scam doesn’t quite go as planned, as he is enlisted once again in someone else’s scheme.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, although it took me a while to get through it. The pacing is uneven, and the slow bits caused me to put the book down more often than I might otherwise. I read The Club Dumas many years ago. I don’t remember it well, but I don’t recall the tempo being quite so uneven. I found a copy in our shelves and may have to reread it.