The Bad Girl
by Mario Vargas Llosa
The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Imagine that the love of your life is bad to the bone. Picture yourself under the spell
of a genius of deception and craftiness, but one who also possesses beauty and
charm and a larger-than-life presence. You know that you are a fool, but you find
yourself unable to resist the allure of your tormentor.

The hero of Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel,
The Bad
, finds himself in just such a predicament. During
the summer of 1950, a Peruvian teenager falls in love
with a young Chilean girl who has moved to his
neighborhood. Ricardo Somocurcio is captivated by
the new arrival’s haughty attitudes, her risqué
dancing, and her charming foreign accent. Little
does he know that he has met the “bad girl.” For
the next four decades, she will periodically enter his
life, wreak havoc with everything he holds dear,
and then vanish – until her next inevitable re-

There are many famous bad girls in literary history [see sidebar] – from Helen of Troy
to Lolita – but Vargas Llosa’s heroine raises her manipulative games to such a high
level that they almost become a type of performance art. “The truth was,” Ricardo
muses, “there was something in her impossible not to admire, for the reasons that
lead us to appreciate well-made works even when they’re perverse.” The Chilean
girl, as it turns out, is not even from Chile – this was just a ruse and tall tale to give
her notoriety in a new neighborhood. Even the foreign accent is a sham. At other
times in the novel, she reappears as Comrade Arlette the Cuban revolutionary,
Madame Arnoux the diplomat’s wife, Kuriko the Japanese smuggler, and in other
guises and identities.

But she always returns to Ricardo – sometimes merely to tease or taunt him, other
times to play the part of a model companion. But the bad girl can never be content
for long with the ho-hum existence of a homemaker. She longs for wealth, power
and intrigue. The moment a more exciting alternative comes along, she is quick to
abandon her devoted lover.

Vargas Llosa is fascinated by this dysfunctional relationship, and probes it in all its
glory and unseemliness. Our moral systems prize forgiveness, and praise the
wronged party who “turns the other cheek.” Yet we are also taught to despise a
loser like Ricardo who lets his beloved walk all over him. But Vargas Llosa
understands that these ethical and religious considerations are overwhelmed by the
magnetic attraction between those who want to domineer and others who find joy
in abject submission. He adds to the subtlety of his exposition by creating a sub-plot
in which the bad girl falls under the sway of a domineering criminal who manipulates
her in exactly the same manner as she does Ricardo.

Above all, Vargas Llosa is a great storyteller. His tale unfolds in a series of taut
interludes which move over the course of a half dozen countries on three continents.
And though he never loses sight of his main plot, he takes time to build fascinating
side stories. We follow the dark side of Tokyo nightlife, or meet a Peruvian mystic
who seems to be able to converse with the powers of the sea, or follow the self-
discovery of a mute boy who learns to speak several languages.

As we have seen in so many of Vargas Llosa’s other novels, this author has an
endless fascination with the complexities and quirks of ordinary people. Perhaps it is
more accurate to say that for this novelist, there are no ordinary people, but each
individual possesses hidden resources that waiting for the right occasion before
they come into play.
The Bad Girl continues in this tradition, and offers us a heroine
who will rank among Vargas Llosa’s most memorable creations.

This review originally appeared on

In honor of Mario
Vargas Llosa's latest
The Bad Girl
we look back at our
favorite fallen angels
of fiction.

Helen of Troy:  She
makes a fool of
Menelaus, leads the
Trojan prince Paris
to his doom, and
more than two
thousand years later
shows up in Goethe’
Faust  to tempt a
scholar on his path
to damnation.  Very,
very bad!

Medea:  The ancient
prototype for
.  Learn a
lesson from Jason
(of Argonaut fame)
and always do a
background check.  
Most heinously bad!

Becky Sharp:  There
are many cunning
and willful woman in
English literature,
but the prototype is
this ambitious
heroine from
.  Too sharp for
you . . .  watch out!

Emma Bovary:   No
author probed more
deeply into human
fallibility than
Flaubert, and his
most famous
heroine may be the
empress of all
literary bad girls.  
Unflinchingly bad.

Hester Prynne:  A
bad girl, perhaps,
but we forgive here.  
So bad she is good.  

Anna Karenina:  All
happy bad girls
resemble one
another, each
unhappy bad girl is
unhappy in her own
way.  But few
literary bad girls
suffer more than
Anna K., who pays a
terrible price for her
bad judgment.  Oh,
so tragically bad.  

Daisy Miller:  The
heroine of Henry
James’ novella
shows that there is
nothing European
males like more than
American bad girls.  
Oh, so bad, but give
us more.

Odette de Crecy:  
Charles Swann is a
dashing young man
of means who is
perfectly self-
sufficient – until he
meets Odette in a
love story that forms
the center piece of
the first volume of
Remembrance of
Things Past.
may be just a
shallow tart and
courtesan, but she
wraps Swann
around her finger.  
He finally laments:
"I've wasted years
of my life for a
woman who wasn’t
even my type."   
Extremely bad.

:  She
keeps bad company,
and makes them
even worse.  
Carmen doesn't
know whether to
seduce detective
Philip Marlowe or kill
him.  Either way, she
keeps us turning the
pages of Raymond
The Big
.  Bad but in a
sexy kind of way.  

Lolita Haze:  
Humbert Humbert
attempts to corrupt
the young nymphet
– but he is too late.  
She has already
learned the dirty
deed from a boy at
summer camp.  But
Humbert ends up in
prison, and another
of Lolita’s lovers is
murdered.  This girl
is bad news.  

Sarah Woodruff:  
She is
The French
Lieutenant’s Woman,

and serves as a
source of
scandalous gossip in
the town of Lyme
Regis.  A young
gentleman, Charles
Smithson falls under
her spell, but finds
that saving this lost
soul will put his own
life in disarray.  Bad,
bad, bad!
Mario Vargas Llosa