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An exotic South American city, the soul and sensuality of Brazilian culture, an undying devotion to saving the rainforest—this novel’s pages are heavy with romance, written with the vivid urgency of a 20-something in the midst of finding herself.
It is the story of Ellen—a 21-year-old on fellowship from Yale to conduct research in the rain-forest. A clerical error or some kind of miscommunication is made on her behalf, and Ellen ends up far from the Amazon in the city of Salvador.
It is a struggle at first. Culture shock, language barriers, and a general lack of self-confidence keep Ellen cooped up in a hotel room, shades drawn. Gradually, with reassurance and support found in blossoming female friendships, “Midwestern plain as picket fence” Ellen transforms into Elena—a freshly minted Brazilian girl.
The Amazon is pushed to the far corner of her mind as Elena settles into life in Salvador. She rapidly gains fluency in Portuguese and street life, takes up capoeira, and enters a cooking school.Salvador also shows her great hardships and exposes her to the damaging horrors of rape, prostitution, and deceit.
Throughout her time in Salvador, we see that Elena grapples with physical beauty and sexuality. She is constantly dieting despite her slim figure and always seeking male attention despite her inability to feel tangible love and attraction towards the opposite sex.
Two thirds into the novel, when Elena finally reaches the rain-forest, we learn that she actually has no notion of how to help the environmental effort she’s been dying to join, no idea of what type of research she’d like to do. She chooses to join a scientist’s team because of his handsome blue eyes, ends up having a nearly fatal allergic reaction, and the rest of her time in the Amazon is summed up in an underwhelming page and half. It is here that the novel falls short, as it turns out it is not a story moving towards anything, but a vignette—a dreamy, ruminative account of Levy’s year abroad in Brazil nearly thirty years ago.
Near the book’s end, Levy outright lists the things that have happened: she went to the Amazon, she can now speak Portuguese, she was raped, her friend became a prostitute, she’s not afraid of muggers. It is in this list that you realize almost nothing has happened in nearly 200 pages because despite her bronzed skin and swaying hips, Levy is still unhappy with herself and still unable to love others.
Hints are dropped about resolution and change, but they always take place in the future—”later, when I return to the Amazon” or “later, when I first fall in love with a woman”—and never within the story itself.
This novel is brimming with intelligent sentences, observant and eloquent descriptions, and a riot of beautiful expressions. Levy’s keen eye and writing skills provide a palpable sense of Brazil in the 1980s and what it’s like to be a young woman occupied by much existential and sexual incertitude. It clearly is well-written, but also clearly unfinished as a complete portrait of a young woman’s adventure in Brazil.
Amazons: A Love Story
By E.J. Levy
University of Missouri Press
Hardcover, 9780826219756, 200 pp.