Disclaimer: A review copy of these books was provided by the publisher for an honest review.
My Last Continent by Midge Raymond and What We Become by Arturo Pérez-Reverte are two recently released novels from Simon & Schuster, and if you skim their surface, they initially appear to be quite similar. Starting with their covers—My Last Continent is a brilliant blue with a ship crossing across the jacket through a star filled sky and an icy sea. What We Become uses a much darker, richer tone of blue, and takes away the ice, but it feels as though it could easily be the same boat traveling under the same star filled sky.
In addition, as the covers suggest, both stories take place (at least partially) on boats. Or more accurately, it’s on the ships that the characters’ stories actually began. It’s there that romance blossoms for them, a romance that will follow them through the years and across the world. But despite these superficial similarities, at their heart, these are two very different books.
What We Become is the story of a decade-spanning love affair between Mecha, a wealthy European woman, and Max, a high class Argentinian dancer/thief. They first meet on a cruise ship in 1928, he as an employee, paid to dance with the ladies, she as the wife of a famous composer who is traveling to Buenos Aires, because he wants to write a tango. Their attraction is undeniable from the first time they dance together. They dance flawlessly together, and Max soon finds himself guiding the couple through the underbelly of Buenos Aires to see the real “old school tango.” Despite his attraction for Mecha, however, after a few nights, he does what he does best—robs them and slips off into the night.
But, because this is a rather grand love story, this is not the last time their paths cross. Nine years later they find themselves attending the same party in Nice, France. Max’s situation has changed a bit; he’s no longer a professional dancer on a cruise ship, and Mecha’s husband has been taken prisoner back in Spain. Their romance is every bit as intense and dangerous as ever, but Max soon finds himself mixed up with the wrong people, and when his job goes horribly wrong and leaves two Italian spies dead, he’s forced to leave Mecha behind and flee once again.
As fate would have it though, Nice is still not the last time they see one another, and twenty-nine years later, Max, who is no longer a dancer or a thief, but instead a chauffeur, catches sight of Mecha walking the streets of Sorrento, Italy. The stakes are different this time, but even an international chess tournament and the KGB can’t keep them from being drawn back together again.
This book was unexpected in a number of ways. It didn’t flow chronologically; instead it shifted between all three points in time, often changing multiple times within the same chapter. As a result, it was always intriguing to wait and find out when Max’s actions and Mecha’s desires would start to get the better of them and discover what would ultimately drive them apart in each locale. Arturo Pérez-Reverte writes beautifully, and each famous city felt like it’s own distinct world.
Midge Raymond’s My Last Continent doesn’t take place in famous cities, her character’s don’t wear chic clothes, and there are no spies—Italian, Russian, or otherwise. But her two protagonists, Deb Gardner and Keller Sullivan, would likely feel as though they could relate to Max and Mecha in their own way. For starters, they both meet on a ship, and just like Max and Mecha, they find themselves drawn to each other in a way they’ve never been drawn to another person before.
Like, What We Become, Raymond’s novel doesn’t follow a strict timeline. Instead it highlights the different stages of their relationship, as well as Deb’s life leading up to the present day. Though the romance is a dominant element of the story, it’s more hers than it is theirs. It’s told from her perspective, it highlights her hopes, dreams, and fears, both personally and professionally. That being said, their romance is still a highly compelling reason to pick up this book. And it begins on a voyage to Antarctica (the titular continent).
Deb is a naturalist, who has devoted her life to studying the penguins. Keller, when they first meet, is a man trying to get away from it all, and he has signed up to work on in the kitchens at the home base. Eventually, however, he falls in love with the icy land mass, the birds that make their home there, and of course, Deb. After Keller also trains as a naturalist, the two of the find new ways to make their way back to the continent (and to each other), to work, escort tourists, and try and figure out how they’re going to make their relationship work despite some insurmountable obstacles—up to and including a shipwreck in the frozen waters.
Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s What We Become is an elegant and ambitious book. It spans decades and continents and the stakes for his characters (particularly Max) are high. But I never felt fully engrossed in it, the way I did reading My Last Continent. Though Reverte describes the cities of Buenos Aires, Nice, and Sorrento in great detail and with great reverence, they started to feel more like fantasy lands then real places, with everything arranged just so and all the characters you would expect populating the background scenery. This stands in stark contrast to the way Raymond describes Antarctica in My Last Continent, where if you closed your eyes you would swear you could feel the wind on your face and hear the crunch of the snow and ice under your feet. I may never have the chance to travel there, but Raymond made me feel as though I experienced the next best thing.
I also found the relationship and romance to be much stronger in My Last Continent. Max and Mecha were continually drawn to each other, but we’re told more of their chemistry then we are shown it on the page. Max’s chemistry with her pearl necklace felt more intense. And eventually their antics become more annoying than riveting. In My Last Continent, however, I felt like I understood both Keller and Deb separately as well as together. They were fully realized characters, and there were so many small details that made me feel as though they could be real people, people that I would love to sit down with over a cup of coffee and pick their brains.
Both of these novels approach the idea of love and ambition from different angles, and both approaches have value. For those who prefer their love stories to be more about the glitz and glam What We Become will hold high appeal. There was almost a Gatsby-esque element to the characters, in both their attitudes, lifestyles, and romance. But for a more contemporary and emotional read, My Last Continent, will leave you wishing, like Deb and Keller, for even more time together on the frozen land and the penguins that call it home.