Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an emotionally-charged, character-driven story about two strangers, Maite and El Elvis, as they navigate the confluence of their personal lives and the fraught political situation in 1970s Mexico City.
Steeped in the political climate of the Cold War and brimming with evocative pop culture references from the era, Velvet Was the Night is not a thriller, as many have mistakenly classified it, but a traditional noir in that its main focus is on the characters’ emotional journeys as they grapple with the psychological impacts of their sociopolitical and historical context. Moreno-Garcia’s writing is sharp, gritty, and full of wit, and her insight into the psychological lives of the characters as they navigate their political landscape—sometimes unwillingly—was a highlight of the book for me. With novels spanning multiple genres, Moreno-Garcia proves that she is one of the most versatile writers of our time, and while I could sing her praises until the end of my days, I’d like instead to address a common thread of critique I have seen for her new book. Thus, this will be less of a review of Velvet Was the Night and more of an essay examining common reader perceptions of Maite, the female protagonist of the novel. I would like to address these perceptions, tease them apart, and offer my own, alternate analysis of Maite’s character.
Amid the amazing reception Velvet Was the Night has received, I have encountered a common thread of complaint about Matie from some readers: that she is meek, superficial, self-centered, and (foolishly) waiting for some wealthy, good-looking man to stumble along and sweep her off her feet. Many readers found her unpleasant company for the duration of the book, but I want to offer a different perspective—one that is historically contextualized—and challenges people to think differently about historically situated female characters. Although I am nothing like Maite, I personally adored her; I found her to be an honest depiction of a woman who struggles with and against the socialization not only of her time, but of our time as well (depending on who you are and where you are). I see her in many of the women of my mother’s generation, and I see the remnants of those women in my friends.
One of the central tenants of the noir is the unsavoury character: someone who is deeply flawed but whose humanity—while not always pleasant—is reflected in those imperfections. That is to say that the flaws of the characters are not designed to be endearing or even sympathetic, necessarily, but honest. And when it comes to female protagonists, many contemporary readers have become accustomed to the valorization of the strong female character: someone who sheds or rejects the social pressures placed upon women and somehowmanages to exist outside of them as a paragon of female liberation. Female characters are judged by how neatly they fit the notion of the empowered woman—a figure at once purported to be attainable, yet one that has grown fraught under the mounting pressure to be everything to everyone. In other words, the strong female character has become both expectation and fantasy, leaving increasingly less room for women who are not strong, who do succumb to social pressures to be one way or another, who are petty, jealous, superficial, and, above all, in pain because of it. Women who grow to reflect their social conditions and suffer from flaws that are actual flaws, not secret strengths, are relegated to the amorphous categories of “unlikeable” and “unrelatable,” as if personal rapport between reader and fictional character is somehow necessary to afford those female characters complex personhood and compassion. We don’t care to understand women we deem weak, superficial, self-indulgent, and naively fanciful; we want to judge them for their failure to abscond their social baggage.
The intense dislike directed at characters like Maite reveal more about the reader than they do about Maite herself. What does Maite’s disempowerment and alienation tell us about those who appraise her harshly simply because she is disempowered and alienated? This demand for relatable characters who make us feel good is rooted in a desire for escapist literature, and the appeal of escapist literature is that it sweeps the reader away from the burdens and boredom of quotidian. And yet, this is precisely the behaviour that Maite is judged for. One might say, then, that the judgment directed at Maite is judgment that would otherwise be directed at the self. But Maite’s struggle to form meaningful connections with people until the final pages of the book is not the result of poor character development or an unfledged romantic subplot; it is a realistic glimpse into the deep alienation perpetuated by the modern condition and the sociopolitical reality in which Maite is trapped. Furthermore, to say that Maite does not experience growth is uncharitable and reflects an assumed trajectory of character development that has come to be expected in less nuanced spaces. When the book opens, the narrative makes no bones of the fact that Maite indulges her fantasies of romance as a means of survival. Secret Romance, the comic book that gets Maite out of bed in the morning, serves as a fragile source of hope that one day, she may mean something to someone, and that perhaps one day, she will escape her mother’s critical eye—something Maite has internalized to such a degree that she can barely look at herself in the mirror without experiencing self-loathing.
Her escapism into comics and romantic fantasies, then, is not a sign of a constitutionally immature, self-indulgent young woman, but reveals a fundamental tension in her psyche: she is at war with the archetype of womanhood she has been socialized to see as valuable, at once wishing to embody it while also railing against the pressure to settle into her designated role. And by the end of the book, her reliance on romantic fantasies lessens dramatically; she is ready to commit to a man she did not expect to develop affections for, and when he too foists her aside for a prettier, younger woman, Maite perseveres. When given the choice to retreat into her fantastical escape via comic books and stories of epic romance, or to join an unlikely stranger for coffee, she chooses the latter even when longstanding habit badgers her to return to the comfort of escapism. Maite decides, despite her recent heartbreak, to trust in the potential for human connection. This is in profound contrast to the Maite we met at the beginning of the book: a woman who, after being dumped by man who called her a boring f*ck, scuttled into her protective shell where her feelings of inadequacy festered like a dirty wound.
Maite is thus not the flat, superficial character that she may initially appear to be. However, when we are unwilling to grant messy humans the space to be messy, it is easy to judge them unworthy of their role as our beloved protagonist. For this reason, I want to challenge readers not to judge characters based on the arbitrary qualities of strength, relatability, and likeability that have come to be expected, but to approach those characters as people who are situated in a context that ultimately informs who they are and how they move through the world. Not all women can be badasses who topple kingdoms and usurp the power of the gods, and to strive for this may not only be unkind to our fictional heroines, but to ourselves as well. Sometimes, the most insurmountable challenge is to take a step off the path well-trodden, and to have coffee with a stranger when you’d rather stay in the comfort of your loneliness, because in any noir just as in life, intimacy and trust are as terrifying as the fate of the world.