In a tony gated community outside Buenos Aires, three men are found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool on a Friday morning. A fourth man had been with them on Thursday night, but he left the gathering early and returned home drunk and so disoriented that he fell down the stairs and broke his leg.
Claudia Piñeiro’s novel Thursday Night Widows opens with these three deaths then moves back in time to give a history of the community and the families that lived there. The families came into the community during a financial boom, and for them, it was a refuge from everything they considered unpleasant, from bats and weasels to more than a token representation of Jews, Koreans, and dark-skinned children. The families of Cascade Heights were a law unto themselves, keeping their crime in check through a disciplinary committee, instead of the police, and looking the other way when couples are having trouble. Everyone knows—at least in part—what everyone else is up to, but they all maintain an image of class and respectability that distinguishes Cascade Heights from the outside world.
Virginia Guevara, or “Mavi,” knows the community secrets better than anyone. She’s the one who handles sales of homes in Cascade Heights, and she keeps track of everything, never knowing what kind of information could become relevant to the sale of a home. Her red notebook, in which she kept her notes, was the stuff of legend:
We all knew of its existence, but nobody had read it—although some claimed to have done so. We feared that we may have been included in it, and also that we may not have been. And we hazarded (wrongly) that all of us together could build up a picture similar to the one taking shape within its pages, simply by stringing together isolated remarks we had heard from Virginia over the years, and by inventing some other plausible ones. By repeating such maxims as we remembered, we began to build up an imaginary, oral version of the red notebook, which we defended as the truth. And Virginia did not refute it. “Behave yourself, or you’re going down in my red notebook,” she would threaten, laughing. She claimed to jot down everything, even when she was not sure of the usefulness of some notes.
I love crime novels that focus on the story behind the crime, rather than on solving the crime. And this is just such a novel. There’s no detection or anything like that. In fact, it’s not even clear that there is a crime. The book is more of a psychological crime novel, but in this case it’s the psychology of a community, rather than of a killer or a victim or a suspect (although one could argue that the community is all three of these things). The deaths are only referenced occasionally; they often take a backseat to all kinds of family problems that may not have anything to do with the deaths. There’s the man who beats his wife, a couple looking to bring a third partner to their bed, a mother who shows nothing but disdains for her dark-skinned adopted daughter, a teenage son who smokes pot and gets drunk, a couple relying on their friends to help them stay financially solvent, and more and more men losing their jobs as the economy tanks.
The dynamics of the various families and of the community itself were well-described, but I found the structure confusing at times. The timeline, which jumped back and forth in time, was not always easy to follow. A child who was just starting school in one chapter was thinking about graduation just a few chapters later. It was hard to get a handle on where I was in the community’s history. Also, Piñeiro switched between Virginia’s first-person account and another first-person plural narrator who I suppose is meant to just be the women of the community (or some specific subset of women). It was an odd choice. Having read the ending, I think I see what Piñeiro was doing, but I’m not entirely sure that it works.
Despite these criticisms, I liked what Piñeiro was doing with this. It was as much an examination of privilege and wealth as it was a crime novel. But one of the things I like about crime fiction is that it often forces us to look more carefully at the day-to-day wrongs around us each day by showing the darkest possible results of those wrongs. I think that’s what Piñeiro was trying to do, and she succeeds at doing that.