The novel begins in an amazing, unexpected manner with the author, Beatriz Yagoda, climbing into an almond tree with her suitcase and a cigar. It is her way of disappearing from the world. Emma Neufeld, her Portuguese-to-English translator from Pittsburgh -an alter-ego of Idra Novey, who is herself translating the work of the fabulous Clarice Lispector- leaves her fiance and flies to Rio de Janeiro to find her beloved author, Beatriz.
Rio is flavored and unexpected, inhabited by strange characters like the loan shark, Flamenguinho, the pedant, careful, Roberto Rocha, Beatriz's publisher and editor, and her very different children -Raquel and Marcus. All of them are looking for the author but at the same time, they are on a search of their own.
Raquel resents Emma's infatuation with her mother and though she has never read any of her books, she is looking for answers, whereas Marcus, unaware of this, finds love in the translator. But every search means shaking or shedding the very essence or skins that they inhabit. In order to understand and connect to the humanity of the author, all characters -Emma, Raquel, Marcus, Roberto- give up their own definitions of themselves and reshape not only relationships, but their very future.
Where the structure of the novel is concerned, the dictionary entries that blend real word definitions with fictional explanations, the emails inserted on page, the translation notes and the broadcasts from Radio Globo on the author's disappearance and the unfolding of the events, are amazing techniques that work perfectly in the book. Of all the definition that fills its pages, the one for "promise" is intriguing : 2. A verb used to assure a certain outcome, as in, With time, a translator gets used to promising the impossible the way a loan shark gets used to promising carnage."
The novel reads like an investigation and all these craft elements build up on the mystery around Beatriz's disappearance. The way the images are juxtaposed and infused with a shred of magic realism make the novel incredibly balanced between the real story and the search for meaning behind words: "In translation, this kind of dilemma was known as domestication. A translator could justify moving around the objects in a sentence if it made it easier for her audience to grasp what was going on ...The problem with domesticating was the possible misplacement of truth."
The novel is concerned with such concepts as misplacement and misunderstanding, as well as with shifting identities and how the translating process relies on an initial state of uneasiness that results into an inhabitation of the very text if essence is meant to be captured. Even so, despite of the translator's devotion to the text and the familiarity with the author, the process is about seeking the truth in the details of the language. In the transmission of art -the work of Beatriz, in this situation- the reader witnesses moral dilemmas, violence, remorse, romance, comedy- an entire array of human emotions that make the book irresistible. In the end, the reader is left wondering about how we gain agency of our work and life equally, by staying true to ourselves and accepting that there are things we are not bound to change.