The story charts the spectacular destruction of the marriage of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia, a middle-aged couple in Lima who marry despite Donna Lucrecia's concerns about becoming a stepmother to Don Rigoberto's son, Fonchito. Don Rigoberto focuses so completely on his rich fantasy life - a fantasy life augmented by his reproductions of smutty nudes by the likes of Titian and Jordaens (left) - that he doesn't notice the hazards that cause Donna Lucrecia anxiety. For her own part, despite her awareness of the dangers, Donna Lucrecia doesn't know how to manage the risks and so falls prey to Fonchito, who first seduces her and then exposes her to Don Rigoberto.
The novel contains lovely reproductions of the paintings that animate Don Rigoberto's and Donna Lucrecia's sexual fantasies. These fantasies involve detailed narrative accounts of the naughty doings that the paintings portray, narratives that - in their attentiveness to the minutiae of the visual art - contrast starkly with the couple's myopic view of encroaching (and menacing) reality.
In his portrayal of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia, Vargas Llosa is not merely mocking people who devote more energy to their fantasies than to their flesh-and-blood lives. Rather, he takes aim at the narrowness and lack of ambition of the lives (and, consequently, the imaginations) of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia.
Don Rigoberto, for example, engages in an elaborate, nightly pre-sex ritual, during which he secludes himself in the bathroom and devotes obsessive attention to one part of his body each day of the week. One night - ear night (removing wax and tweezing unwanted hairs) - Don Rigoberto muses:
"Happiness exists," he repeated to himself, as he did every night. Yes, provided one sought it where it was possible. In one's own body and in that of one's beloved, for instance; by oneself and in the bathroom; for hours or minutes on a bed shared with the being so ardently desired. Because happiness was temporal, individual, in exceptional circumstances twofold, on extremely rare occasions tripartite, and never collective, civic. It was hidden, a pearl in its seashell, in certain rites or ceremonial duties that offered human beings brief flashes and optical illusions of perfection. One had to be content with these crumbs so as not to live at the mercy of anxiety and despair, slapping at the impossible. Happiness lies hidden in the hollow of my ears, [Don Rigoberto] thought, in a mellow mood.
(p. 29.) I had wondered why Vargas Llosa (and his publisher) had gone to the trouble of reproducing the paintings in In Praise of the Stepmother, since doing so inevitably made the book more expensive. But when I read, "Happiness lies hidden in the hollow of my ears," I had my answer. Anyone who can gaze upon the art slipped between the pages of the novel and yet still conclude that happiness is as confined a condition as may be experienced from wax-free ear canals deserves to have his wife seduced by his son.
In Praise of the Stepmother is a condemnation of the Philistine, and particularly of aesthetic pretensions of the nouveau riche. Like a snubbed Yahweh smoting some unfortunate idolaters, Vargas Llosa deals pitilessly with this hapless couple, allowing them to ignore that the powers unleashed by great art are complex and uncontrollable, and ultimately crushing his protagonists under the weight of their ignorance.
Though Vargas Llosa's vengeance is confined to the imagined world of his novel, In Praise of the Stepmother stands as an unmistakable warning to those who, rather than blind themselves with paintings, bury themselves in books.
(Image of Jacob Jordaens King Candaules of Lydia Showing his Wife to Gyges from National Museum of Sweden website)