In Praise of the Stepmother

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With meticulous observation and the seductive skill of a great storyteller, Vargas Llosa lures the reader into the shadow of perversion that, little by little, darkens the extraordinary happiness and harmony of his characters. The mysterious nature of happiness and above all, the corrupting power of innocence are the themes that underlie these pages, and the author has perfectly met the demands of the erotic novel, never dimming for an instant the fine poetic polish of his ...

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In Praise of the Stepmother

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With meticulous observation and the seductive skill of a great storyteller, Vargas Llosa lures the reader into the shadow of perversion that, little by little, darkens the extraordinary happiness and harmony of his characters. The mysterious nature of happiness and above all, the corrupting power of innocence are the themes that underlie these pages, and the author has perfectly met the demands of the erotic novel, never dimming for an instant the fine poetic polish of his writing.

Mario Vargas Llosa, the internationally acclaimed author of The Storyteller, adds his own finely-tuned poetic polish to this erotic exploration of carnality in one family. He turns the proverbial romantic triangle on its ear to create this New York Times bestselling erotic novel. French flaps and six full-color pages of classic artworks.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Powerful, incendiary...Vargas Llosa is a master storyteller.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Vargas Llosa is a writer of promethean authority, making outstanding fiction in whatever direction he turns.... Erotically stimulating, artfully self-assured, In Praise of the Stepmother is a steamy as it is intelligent.” —Newsday

“Startling...Not only would an American presidential candidate not have written it but the National Endowment for the Arts wouldn’t have given it a grant.” —The New Yorker

“The author is silky....Vargas Llosa has written a genuinely erotic story and a wicked parody of one.” —Los Angeles Times

“An elaborate and lushly written novel.” —USA Today

“Vargas Llosa has tickled all our notions of love and lust, felicity and perversity, teased all our ideas of innocence and self-consciousness, and nibbled playful and ambiguous at every romantic fancy, from the classical to the abstract, the ancient to the postmodern, the sacred to the profane.” —San Francisco Chronicle & Examiner

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Don Rigoberto and his second wife arouse each other by telling highly eroticized classic myths based on the six well-known paintings reproduced here in color; meanwhile, Rigoberto's seemingly cherubic young son, Alfonso, cunningly seduces his stepmother. ``This lapidary novella by the celebrated Peruvian writer reflects an artistry of almost infinite sophistication,'' said PW. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Vargas Llosa's brief novel dramatizes--but in most undramatic terms--an erotic triangle involving a self-absorbed if passionate widower, his voluptuous new wife, and his young son. Set forth as a series of tableaux inspired by master paintings (reproduced here in color), the novel eventually reveals itself as the actual instrument by which the son destroys his father's new marriage. Vargas Llosa's novel The Storyteller ( LJ 9/15/89) won high praise, but Stepmother --static and obsessive as it is--conveys none of the excitement of his best work. Perhaps he has been distracted; most recently, the author was an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency of Peru. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/90.--Grove Koger, Boise P.L., Id.
John Updike
"Startling...not only would an American presidential candidate not have written it, but the National Endownment for the Arts wouldn't have given it a grant." -- The New Yorker
Digby Diehl
"Literary art of a high order...reading it is like floating in a pool on a warm day and having a long erotic daydream." -- Playboy
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312421304
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 11/28/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 780,827
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.23 (h) x 0.46 (d)

Meet the Author

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” Peru’s foremost writer, he has been awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s most distinguished literary honor, and the Jerusalem Prize. His many works include The Feast of the Goat, The Bad Girl, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The War of the End of the World, and The Storyteller. He lives in London.

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Reading Group Guide

The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto and In Praise of the Stepmother
by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto
and In Praise of the Stepmother

What is the value of art over ideology? How far can our quest for individual liberties take us? Can a man who collects—and burns—precious books and paintings be considered civilized? These are just some of the questions posed by the erudite and endlessly entertaining Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa in his two books about the life and marriage of Don Rigoberto.

A wealthy insurance executive, Don Rigoberto is a member of Lima's well-heeled bourgeois society—the kind of man one sees at board meetings and cocktail parties. But by night Don Rigoberto sheds his conventional skin to pursue his true passions: erotic art and sexual fantasy. In the privacy of his small library Don Rigoberto pores over a considerable collection of erotica that, by self-imposed dictum, must always consist of exactly four thousand volumes and one hundred canvases. Upon acquiring a new book or painting, he consigns an old one to the fireplace he has built as a "crematorium" for such abandoned works. In The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, Vargas Llosa has chosen a rather shocking idiosyncrasy with which to introduce his hero. The book-burning, fantasy-spinning Don Rigoberto rails against anyone who would denounce his secretive passions; rotary club members, sports enthusiasts, feminists, animal-rights activists, and patriots are all dismissed as mindless adherents to a hoard mentality, and therefore deserving of Don Rigoberto's scorn. In fact, there are few people Don Rigoberto would consider worthy of his admiration. Among them are his beautiful—currently estranged—second wife, Lucrecia, and his precocious, cherubic teen-aged son, Alfonso. Both wife and son, it seems, possess Don Rigoberto's appetite for sensual pleasures. Unfortunately, they have found satisfaction for their cravings in each other's company—a fact that even a non-conventionalist like Don Rigoberto finds hard to digest.

As a literary figure, Don Rigoberto embodies several such contradictions. He is both scrupulously clean and remarkably ugly; he embraces personal freedom, yet has no tolerance for any art form or intellectual idea that opposes his tastes or beliefs. Most of all he is a formidable man who is also helplessly in love with his wife. Night after night Don Rigoberto professes his love for Lucrecia in a series of imagined erotic scenes in an attempt to duplicate the couple's nightly habit of sharing fantasies with each other. As the book progresses, Don Rigoberto's hunger for his wife intrudes into his fantasies—at times he is too debilitated by grief and desire to go on. Interspersed with these messages of longing are Don Rigoberto's diatribes against the world that would dare to condemn his passions and a series of intimate love letters reflecting the playful, sensuous relationship that the two lovers shared. Pulling together the novel's intellectually driven components is a narrative which concerns Alfonso's attempts to forge a reconciliation between Lucrecia and Don Rigoberto, the boy's own obsession with the erotic painter Egon Schiele, and his efforts to play out this obsession in a series of Schiele-inspired tableaux featuring the enticing Lucrecia.

Vargas Llosa's elaborate novel brilliantly combines elements of two disparate art forms. In alternating styles and themes he assembles the novel much like an abstract painter will "build" a canvas through color and composition. And like a classical symphony comprised of various movements, the novel gains force through the serial repetition of its components. Don Rigoberto is revealed as a man who is greater than the sum of his parts: art lover, fetishist, bureaucrat, libertarian, and, we grow to understand, vulnerable, hopeless romantic. Lucrecia is clearly a devoted wife who nonetheless rivals her husband in his passions and fantasies. Only Alfonso remains a cipher. At times bewitching and strangely endearing, at times almost malevolent in his ability to manipulate and seduce, this young boy of uncertain age has a power over the people around him. Is he a true innocent or a pathological schemer? How does he embody his father's beliefs in individual liberty? Vargas Llosa is cleverly ambiguous about the fate of the "happy triad." As in the previous adventures of the Rigoberto family, he leaves us wondering about the boundaries of personal freedom, the force of our erotic desires, and the power of art to inspire and motivate us to pursue our most beloved fantasies.

In Praise of the Stepmother

Vargas Llosa introduces this extraordinary triad with a series of vignettes that start out as a portrait of upper-crust domestic bliss, but soon evolve into a fevered story of an unusual seduction. As we learn more about Don Rigoberto and Lucrecia's erotic ardor we grow increasingly confounded by Alfonso's power over them both. How can such a young boy seem so mature? Is he innocent or evil? At the same time, this erotic masterpiece provides a surprising tour of some of the world's artistic treasures. Vargas Llosa's unique rendering of classical and modern art is both revealing and hilarious, but his use of six masterpieces as a means of moving the story along is as bold as it is ingenious. Readers will certainly differ in their opinions about the "happy" family of Don Rigoberto, but no one can argue that Vargas Llosa's playful interpretations of his selected paintings are as entertaining as they are eye-opening.


Peru's foremost writer, Mario Vargas Llosa is the author of ten novels, including Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The War of the End of the World, Death in the Andes, and The Storyteller. He has also written the memoir A Fish in the Water, three plays, and several volumes of literary essays. In 1995 he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize and the Cervantes Prize. In 1998 he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Making Waves. He now lives in London


  1. What distinctions does Don Rigoberto make between erotica and pornography? Do you agree or disagree with his opinions?
  2. Discuss the use of art in one or both books. How do the three main characters use art to communicate their feelings toward each other? What do you think Vargas Llosa is saying about art's place in our lives?
  3. Is Don Rigoberto someone we can admire? Is he a good husband to Lucrecia, or a good father to Alfonso? How do you think he would be perceived by co-workers, friends, or neighbors who knew little about his romantic life? Does Don Rigoberto strike you as a civilized man? Why or why not?
  4. "I don't know if I like being called good," comments Don Rigoberto, "All the good people I've known were pretty imbecilic." What distinction is Vargas Llosa making between morality and behavior? Is being happy a necessary consequence of being good? What's the point of being good if one isn't happy? How do you think author and/or character would define "good"?
  5. What do you think of Alfonso? What role does he play in Lucrecia and Rigoberto's reconciliation? If he did write the letters, should the couple be grateful to him for bringing them back together, or condemn him for his dishonesty? What do you think Alfonso's motives were for wanting the two lovers to be reunited? Do you think he has inherited his father's appreciation for individual liberty?
  6. Why do you think Vargas Llosa chose Egon Schiele as an alter ego for Alfonso? What similarities are there between the two men's lives? How does Schiele's artistic style fit in with the themes of the novel?
  7. What do you think of Lucrecia's relationship with Alfonso in In Praise of the Stepmother? Do you think Don Rigoberto should forgive her for sleeping with her stepson? What limits should we place—if any—on sexual freedom? What, besides the "inappropriateness" of their relationship would a man like Don Rigoberto object to?
  8. Vargas Llosa offers a rare glimpse into Lucrecia's past: "Ever since she was a girl [she] had felt a fascination for standing on the edge of the cliff and looking down into the abyss, for keeping her balance on the railing at the side of the bridge." What does this tell us about Lucrecia's relationships with Don Rigoberto? With Alfonso?
  9. Discuss the narrative structure of one or both books: why do you think Vargas Llosa chose to structure his stories so precisely? How does the use of alternating sections or chapters contribute to the story in terms of pacing, character development and plot?
  10. How does Vargas Llosa make use of real and imaginary worlds? What is more "real" to Don Rigoberto: his life as an insurance executive and member of Lima's high society, or his pursuit of erotic pleasure through painting, literature, and his fantasies about Lucrecia?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2012

    Mesmerizing and poetic in bra Mesmerizing & poetic

    A bold and moving introduction to this amazing two book series

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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