“You who judge me: come! Let me tell you a story…” Paloma Batton is the granddaughter of Spanish refugees who fled Barcelona after the Civil War. A disciplined student attending the school of the Paris Opera Ballet, Paloma lets little get in the way of her career until she receives a mysterious pair of golden earrings. She begins exploring her Spanish heritage and becomes fascinated by la Rusa, a woman who rose from poverty to become one of the great flamenco dancers of modern times before committing suicide. As Paloma begins to unravel the secrets of the past, she discovers more than one person who had good reason for wanting la Rusa dead—including Paloma’s own grandmother.
Written with the same depth and emotion as Belinda Alexandra’s “rich, unforgettable saga” (Kimberly Freeman, author of Wildflower Hill) Tuscan Rose, Golden Earrings moves between two of the great cities of Europe: Barcelona in the lead-up to the Civil War and Paris in the 1970s. It is the story of two women and the extremes to which they are willing to go for love. And above all, it is a story of great passions—and great betrayals—where nothing is quite as it seems.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It was 24 November, the day after the funeral of Generalisimo Franco, the dictator of Spain, that I saw my first ghost. The morning started off ordinarily enough. I woke at six o’clock and stretched my arms and legs before slipping out of bed. It was still dark and I turned on the bedside lamp with its floral shade. By its mottled light, I pulled on my leotard and tights. My hairpins and headband were in the dresser drawer. I fixed my hair away from my face quickly and by habit, before guarding myself against the late autumn chill by wrapping my dressing gown around me and putting on my slippers.
The hallway was dark, but I didn’t need the light to guide me along it towards the kitchen. I crept past Mamie’s bedroom. My grandmother—whom I called ‘Mamie’ when we spoke French and ‘Iaia’ when we spoke Catalan—was a heavy sleeper and a herd of bulls wouldn’t have disturbed her, but it was guilt that made me move quietly. Mamie said that no ballerina should even think of getting out of bed before nine o’clock, let alone practising before that time. But I was meeting Gaby at the café during her break in lectures, and I had classes to give in the afternoon. Despite the events of the previous summer, I could not give up my daily practise of barre and centre work, even if it meant rising early. I’d rather do without sleep and food than miss my routine of pliés, tendus, ronds de jambe and stretching. They were as essential to me as breathing.
I switched on the light above the stove, careful not to wake my cockatiel, Diaghilev, who was still quiet in his covered cage. The Australian parrot with the Russian name had been a present to me from Mamie for my eighteenth birthday and was a chatterer. As soon as the morning light entered the kitchen he would be whistling bars from Mozart’s ‘Alla Turca’. I turned on the tap and filled a saucepan with water. There was a copy of El Diario, the Spanish émigré newsletter, on the bench. The newsletter was directed at those refugees who had fled Spain for France in 1939, after the Civil War. Pictures of Franco from his youth to his old age were on the cover. The article said that the dictator, who had died two weeks shy of his eighty-third birthday, would be buried at a memorial commemorating the War Dead. The paragraph was crossed out in red pen. Next to it Mamie had written: ‘The Fascist War Dead!’ I could feel the vehemence in her scrawl. It was not her usual ladylike penmanship and, if there weren’t only the two of us in the apartment, I would have thought someone else had written it.
I stood by the window while I waited for the coffee to brew. The wheaty smell of fresh bread drifted from the bakery across the street. I lifted the lace curtain and saw a queue of eager housewives waiting on the pavement outside. It was passion that made them early risers, like me. Their pursuit of the finest pain frais to feed their families enabled them to go without sleep. Dance affected me the same way. Nothing gave me more satisfaction than to unfold myself into a beautiful arabesque or execute a graceful grand jeté, even if I had to practise from morning until night seven days a week to do it.
A bittersweet aroma wafted around the kitchen, signalling that the coffee was ready. I let the curtain fall, noticing for the first time that its hem was frayed. I reached for a cup and saucer from the odd assortment of floral and plain designs in the cupboard. When I sat down to drink the honey-thick brew, my lip touched something rough on the china and I saw the cup was chipped. Mamie was fastidiously neat, but it was my mother who would never have tolerated things like chipped cups or frayed curtains. ‘Beauty is always in the details, Paloma,’ she used to say. But Mama wasn’t here any more, and my grandmother and I muddled along in our chipped and frayed existence without her.
There were two entrances to my grandmother’s ballet studio: one was directly from our kitchen; the second was next to the landing in the corridor outside. I took the key from the hook on the back of the kitchen door and entered the studio. Daybreak was starting to filter through the windows that overlooked the courtyard of our apartment building, so I didn’t turn on the lights. Although the floor was swept and mopped daily, the closed air was choked with the scent of dust and mould that was common to old buildings in Paris.
I took my ballet slippers from the cupboard and sat on the floor to tie the ribbons. While I was tucking in the ends, I thought about Mamie’s angry scribbling on the newsletter. When I was a child, I had often asked my grandmother about her Spanish past, but her lips would purse and the light would disappear from her eyes. ‘Perhaps when you are older,’ she would reply. I could see I was causing her pain and learned not to touch on the subject of her life before she came to Paris.
I left my dressing gown and bed slippers on the piano stool. Our accompanist, Madame Carré, would be in later to play Beethoven and Schubert for our students. But I liked to practise on my own in silence, following my body rather than the beat. From my demi-pliés, I moved to my grand-pliés, relishing the feeling of strength and flexibility in my legs. I cringed when a memory from last June’s debacle at the ballet school tried to force its way into my thoughts. I closed my eyes and pushed the image of me standing in front of the noticeboard, bathed in sweat and with nausea rising in my stomach, out of my mind. Years of training had taught me to focus on a single objective until I achieved it, and I was not going to give up on my dreams now.
After an hour at the barre, I was ready to do some centre practise. I positioned myself in front of the mirrored wall at the front of the studio and was about to commence a tendu combination when suddenly the daylight outside flickered. It was such a strange phenomenon that I lost my concentration. A thunderstorm so early in the morning? In November? I moved towards the window, perplexed. That was when I saw her, standing in the courtyard as if she was waiting for someone to arrive. I didn’t realise that she was a ghost at first but I wondered—because of her black wavy hair and the proud way that she held her chin—whether she was Spanish. The woman wasn’t anyone I recognised from Mamie’s collection of former refugees who occasionally gathered in our apartment. My initial impression was that she was a mother coming to enquire about lessons for her child on her way to work.
I opened the window and called to her, ‘Bonjour, Madame! Un moment, s’il vous plaît.’
I grabbed my leg warmers and coat from the cupboard, and slipped some loose boots over my ballet shoes. Before I headed out into the corridor, I picked up a leaflet for our school that gave the times of the classes. It was only when I was halfway down the stairs that it occurred to me that the courtyard door should have still been locked. How had the woman got inside? We didn’t have a concierge: my grandfather had never believed in them. He’d viewed anyone outside of the family as a potential spy.
I reached the ground floor and opened the door to the courtyard. The cold air bit my face and I shivered. I couldn’t see the woman. Where had she gone? Then I felt someone watching me. I turned and saw her standing by the disused well. My breath caught in my throat. She emanated a quality that reminded me of the great étoiles of the Paris Ballet: majesty. Her face was a slightly offset oval, and her nose above her strong, red mouth was broad and flat. But her eyes . . . I had never seen such eyes. They were like two black shells shimmering under the sea. It was their depth that made me realise the woman was not of this world.
She moved slowly towards me, her arm extended from her cloak with the grace of a dancer. Her hand hovered near mine as if she wanted to give me something. Without thinking, I opened my palm. Two objects dropped into it. I glanced down and saw a pair of golden hooped earrings. I looked from my palm to the woman, but she had disappeared as suddenly as she had arrived, leaving only the fading echo of her footsteps and the earrings I held in my hand.
Reading Group Guide
Paloma Batton led a relatively normal life before encountering her first ghost. A dedicated ballet dancer and aspiring member of the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera, Paloma lived with her grandmother in France and practiced her craft fiercely and meticulously. But when La Rusa, a famous flamenco dancer from Barcelona, appears to her with a pair of golden hoop earrings, Paloma’s reality shifts as she begins to explore the roots of her Spanish heritage and discovers who her ghost is—and what it’s trying to tell her. Author Belinda Alexandra tells Paloma’s story in Golden Earrings using the voices of two extraordinary women growing up in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and how their lives wracked with loss and passion eventually intertwine.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. How would you characterize the landscape of Spain in the early 1900s? How does it differ from Paris in the 1970s? In what ways do their differences color the stories of the narrators?
2. What are your initial suspicions as to why Evelina (Mamie) refuses to discuss her Spanish past with Paloma?
3. Paloma deeply resents her father for his affair with another woman while her mother was ill and dying. What details might she not know about her parents’ marriage? Can you think of other explanations to the circumstances?
4. Evelina and Celestina experience their worlds very differently, despite living in the same city in the same period. How do poverty and wealth impact the girls’ day-to-day lives? What knowledge or experiences are they isolated from in their respective situations?
5. Author Belinda Alexandra employs the theme of rebellion in Golden Earrings both as a literal and figurative storytelling device. How are they used most powerfully? Which character is most defined by his or her rebellion?
6. Describe Conchita. What does her dress and behavior tell you about her character? How does she seem to fit in with the Montella family and lifestyle?
7. In chapter 24, Celestina compares her father’s death to a bull dying in a matador fight, meaning both of them were destined to lose no matter what. What else does this metaphor represent within the context of the entire story? How did each of the main characters overcome or succumb to their respective destinies?
8. Do you think Celestina needed the tragedies in her life to happen in order to be able to dance as well as she did? Are certain experiences required to develop passion, or can a person simply be born with it?
9. Despite their upbringing, Xavier and Margarida believe in and fight for equality among classes. What kind of experiences may have influenced their altruistic personalities? Do you think good or bad can exist in people regardless of upbringing?
10. How were Paloma’s and Evelina’s perceived betrayals similar? How would Evelina’s life been different if she had known the truth about La Rusa and Conchita?
11. Knowing the purpose for why La Rusa visited Paloma beyond the grave, why do you think her ghost appeared to Paloma during that time of her life? Why not years before, or years later?
12. Why do you think Evelina never tells Julieta or Paloma about their real mother/heritage? Do you think there were reasons beyond her shame and anger toward La Rusa?
13. In Golden Earrings, infidelity is never exactly as it seems to those on the outside. When have you made assumptions about a person or persons and been wrong? Is it better to always give people the benefit of the doubt?
14. Do you agree with the inscription on La Rusa’s tombstone, “All honorable causes eventually succeed even if at first they fail”? Why or why not? If La Rusa’s family hadn’t suffered such tragic deaths for fighting for their beliefs, what honorable causes do you think she would have fought for?
15. If you had been faced with the choice La Rusa was forced to make with Salazar, what would you have done? How do you think La Rusa’s life would have been like if she had chosen to protect Xavier?
16. Belinda Alexandra uses first-person narration from three perspectives to tell her story. How is this better (or worse) than third-person omniscient? How different would your experience have been with the characters within a different narrative style?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In Golden Earrings, dancing is both a form of expression and a carefully honed art. How does your reading group contribute to or participate in the fine arts? Have members bring a drawing, a short story, ticket stubs to an opera, or even a dance routine to your next book club meeting. Take turns discussing how those interests bloomed and how family or familial traditions influenced them.
2. Ramon and Celestina judged the entire Montella family based on the actions of a few. Can you think of a time when someone made assumptions about you based on your last name or who you were related to? Try describing yourself through a stranger's eyes who's meeting you for the first time, and has only ever known your parents or your siblings. What beliefs might they have about your character or personality? How would they be wrong . . . and how would they be right?
3. Evelina writes letters to her sister Margarida for years and years after her death—either as a way to cope or to express her grief. Write a letter to a passed relative or friend. What would you tell him or her about your life? What would you want him or her to know?
4. Organize a ballet or theatre night with your book club—bonus points if you can get tickets to flamenco!
5. Do you have a duende, or demon? What would it look like, and how would you express it? Sketch or describe your demon on a piece of paper and take turns comparing and contrasting your duende with La Rusa’s.