“The Admiral’s Baths”
Author: Dana Gynther
Price: $16.00 (Paperback)
There seems to be evolving a book we can call a Dana Gynther novel.
The protagonist will be a female, or several females. She or they will face difficulties, and, to some to degree or other, prevail.
The Birmingham novelist Kerry Madden explains that she first makes the reader fond of the heroine, then puts her up a tree and throws rocks at her.
It’s like that.
The setting will be exotic, interesting, probably European, and the narrative will extend over considerable time. Gynther herself, after a childhood in Auburn and an MA in French literature at UA, has lived with her husband in Valencia, Spain for many years.
Gynther’s “The Woman in the Photograph” is the story of beautiful fashion model Lee Miller, who goes to Paris in the ’20s, becomes the surrealist Man Ray’s mistress AND a recognized avant-garde photographer, whether he liked it or not!
Gynther’s first published novel, “The Paris Crossing,” takes place on a luxurious French ocean liner as three women, from three classes, become acquainted and we learn their stories in flashbacks.
Her newest, “The Admiral’s Baths,” is in the pattern, only more so.
The novel opens in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in April of 2011. Rachel Cardon, 47, divorced for ten years, has a lot to cope with. Her present boyfriend, Todd Russell, dumps her three days before they are to leave for Spain for the summer.
Rachel’s son, Nick, is glad. He hates Todd anyway; we will learn why.
Her injured heart is pushed to the rear of the line as the tornado strikes Rachel’s neighborhood, damaging her house badly. This section will take many readers back, as Gynther describes the terror AND the outpouring of generosity, kindness, and community spirit.
Nick, 22, an architecture student at Auburn, steps up. He will oversee the house repairs and Rachel can still make her research trip to Valencia, solo.
Rachel is a cultural historian, specializing in everyday life, especially the history of European clothing, cosmetics and hygiene. The focal point of her present research is an ancient bathhouse in Valencia, known as the Admiral’s Baths, that opened in 1313 and closed in 1959.
Through the rest of the novel we will return to Rachel’s summer in Spain as she writes her article and regains her emotional balance, but along the way, Gynther has other tales to tell, all set in and around the bathhouse.
The first, set in 1348, is Fatima’s story. Fatima is a Moslem girl, a skilled potter and painter. Life is comfortable enough until the bubonic plague hits. (Gynther’s descriptions of the plague, with its fevers, welts, and buboes, are not for the weak.) Christians want to blame Moslems for the disease even though Fatima’s family is wiped out. Alone, she moves to Valencia and in time must convert to Christianity in order to marry.
Next we learn of Angels Bonafe, of a family of converted Jews, in 1530. Her family is being scrutinized by the Inquisition, which often suspected “insincerity,” even among families that had converted a few generations before. Once the Spaniards had regained control of Spain, expelling the Moslem army, known sometimes as Moors, a campaign completed in 1492, they turned to Spanish Jews, demanding conversion on pain of expulsion.
Angels is a beauty and, although married, attracts the attention of the aristocratic Filibert Penyarroja. He’s “clean-blooded”: that is, no Jews or Moslems in his tree. Penyarroja is so love-smitten he visits a prostitute to relieve the pressure and really “taints” his blood, bigly. We learn a lot about syphilis. Filibert complains of headaches, fever, fatigue, dizziness, lesions around his groin, aches, bumps on the torso, loss of sleep and appetite, “terrible pains in his bowels,” and also becomes paranoid.
The “cure” for syphilis was quicksilver, that is, mercury. The patient breathed in the fumes, which caused both terrible thirst and uncontrollable salivation—his mouth is described as “gushing like a broken pipe.” His skin took on a bluish tinge and his pores emitted “a scent like fried dough.” And it didn’t work!
Renaissance male readers would be scared straight. The plague is much faster.
The third long flashback is from 1803 and Clara and her love, Lorenzo, will flee to the New World, just ahead of Napoleon’s invasion of Iberia.
As Rachel writes her article about the baths and bathing habits, we learn that Spanish Christians, had far less interest in bathing than Jews or Moslems. Nakedness, anywhere, anytime, in same-sex baths and even in the marital bed, is sinful.
As one enjoys this very readable story, one picks up the clues that will finally link the characters and the centuries. Who has green eyes? Where did that old mandolin come from, that ceramic horse?
We are finally all connected, Gynther tells us, and our bloodstreams are, thankfully, not “pure” even if we think they are, but rather have been quietly, even secretly, enriched through the centuries.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.