Ways To Disappear
By Idra Novey
Little, Brown and Company, 258 pages, $25
In her delightful debut novel, “Ways to Disappear,” Idra Novey makes a gutsy decision: to cast a Portuguese translator as an action hero. Her formula satisfies like a caipirinha served by a green-eyed Adonis in low-slung swim trunks.
Novey’s buttoned-up protagonist, Emma Neufeld, has the clumsy charm of Kathleen Turner in “Romancing the Stone.” A professor in Pittsburgh, Neufeld suddenly feels compelled to join the hunt for a missing Jewish writer in corrupt Brazil. The lost person isn’t any storyteller but Beatriz Yagoda, Brazil’s most misunderstood spinner of tales, whose gambling debts may explain her mysterious exit. Having translated five books with this famous storyteller, nebbishy Emma knows “her author’s” mind better than any private eye or ear-slashing loan shark. Eager to decode metaphor, the high-strung heroine searches for Beatriz — and herself — in this sexy romp through Rio de Janeiro, site of the 2016 summer Olympics.
In pacing and prose, Novey endears herself as every woman’s best friend. Who doesn’t want to vanish from the daily grind, even if that routine includes a thoughtful fiancé who sets up his sweetie’s running shoes for their morning workout? Emma should be happy. But she has wanderlust and the desire to leave her own mark. Novey suggests Emma’s ache through economically short sentences and chapters. “Outside their rented, somewhat shabby house in Pittsburgh, it was snowing sideways,” Novey writes. “In Rio de Janeiro, it was 106 degrees.”
Novey is an energetic mother and poet who has lived in Brazil, Chile, and is now based in Brooklyn, and her background suggests the book may be semi-autobiographical, both through Emma and Beatriz. Not only has Novey translated the fiction of several big names in Brazil, including Jewish writer Clarice Lispector, she teaches at Princeton University and understands Emma’s academic side. Born in Appalachia, Novey grew up in an Ashkenazi family. Her husband, a Chilean, was part of a Sephardi household. “We connected as small town Jews who had grown up as outsiders in pretty anti-Semitic towns,” Novey writes through email. “So the Jewishness goes pretty deep and is pivotal to the novel, too, in Beatriz’s outsider relationship to the literary world.”
Readers first glimpse modest Beatriz, an elegant lady in her sixties, by looking up her skirt. In a down and out section of Copacabana, she goes off the grid by scrambling up an almond tree with a suitcase, her ample behind displayed to domino players below. Rather than appearing fearful, the hiding fugitive looks relieved. At the end of the first chapter, Novey teases with a curious visual that ensures ravenous reading. Beatriz doesn’t just sit on a branch. Rather, she “perched there so serenely with her open book and cigar that Julio wished her well and went home for some beans.”
Through poem-like sections, some only a paragraph long, Novey masterfully exaggerates stakes and silliness, from Emma’s sunhat to her polka-dot underwear flicked passionately from her toe to an umbrella down the hall. Not only does Novey skillfully show and not tell, but she engages the senses. Readers anticipate each character’s destruction because they feel the danger of knives in the alley. As Beatriz writes, “the heat in Brazil was an animal’s mouth. It would swallow anything to feed itself.”
By including frantic emails from Miles, Emma’s boyfriend, Novey successfully illustrates Emma’s awakening, from reliable help mate into a colorful individual. The transition is often painful to watch, especially because her snoring, teeth-grinding partner cares so deeply for her. “We don’t even have to do the wedding,” Miles types under the subject line of “Re: Re: alive?” “We can elope or wait, whatever. Just call, Emma. These people in Brazil are not your life.”
But the longer Emma stays in Brazil, a historical haven for displaced Jews, the more she admits her attraction to the culture and the Yagoda clan. For seven years, she planned yearly pilgrimages to her author’s home. Seeped in Portuguese, Emma would return to Pittsburgh where, late at night, she would sneak out of Miles’ bed to fuss over the best English words to match Beatriz’s spirit. The women bonded. As Novey explains: “[Emma] didn’t just know Beatriz’s books. She knew the melon color of her author’s bathrobe and which side of the sofa Beatriz preferred when she curled to read.”
With lush islands and eccentrics, “Ways to Disappear” provides a pleasurable preview of the summer games and the welcoming nature of locals. Yes, there are kidnappers. True, no one trusts the police. But the nation changes people, often for the better. Traveler’s advice: Enjoy the tropics. Hold onto your wallet. And your relationship.