Years ago I read Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa. I don't remember much of the story but I do remember the setting: Lima, Peru, in the 1950s. I remember the atmosphere of elegance and faded glory in the grand European-style apartment buildings and along the boulevards, the mix of haves and have-nots, and also my total unfamiliarity with the topography.
We have all read enough books set in London and Paris to recognize landmarks like the Thames or the Louvre, but here was a city that sounded equally remarkable and that was so unknown to me. I felt like I was truly visiting someplace exotic. I tried reading other books by Vargas Llosa, but none of them captured the essence of life in Lima the way that one did.
Now finally I'm back in Lima. Lima Nights, Marie Arana's short novel about an affair between a married, aristocratic Peruvian man and a young indigenous girl from the slums, offers all the atmosphere I was seeking, along with a great story of passion and manipulation. Everything happens pretty much as you would expect: the man Carlos is older and married when he meets the girl Maria, who is a dancer in a bar. The affair progresses rapidly, and soon Carlos is so besotted he risks his marriage and his livelihood to be with her.
Arana handles the age difference between the characters well. Yes, it's creepy and you want Carlos to leave the 15-year-old Maria alone. On the other hand you want Maria to find a way out of her squalid life however she can, and Carlos provides a safer exit than most of her other choices. Both have things to gain and things to lose from the relationship, no matter how it turns out.
Unlike Vargas Llosa, who writes in Spanish, Arana writes in English, and indeed works as a writer for the Washington Post. The Post's excellent review of the book (with a more complete plot description than I offer) is here. I hope Arana writes more stories set in Lima.