Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis: A review

I read Carolina De Robertis's previous book, The Gods of Tango, and liked it quite a lot and so I was eager to read her new offering. 

The previous book was about a woman who was unable to fulfill her life's ambition to play the violin simply because she was a woman. So, after emigrating from her home country to Argentina and finding herself in difficult circumstances there, she ultimately made the choice to live as a man and play the violin for tango bands. The current book details forty years of the lives of five women beginning in Uraguay in 1977. These five women are lesbians who came together for friendship and support (and occasionally sex) in a hostile society. They were unable to be themselves, to live their lives openly and honestly. I think I am sensing a common theme in De Robertis's books.  

As a queer woman herself, it is likely the De Robertis has faced some of the prejudice and discrimination that the women in her novels have faced. Thus, she is perhaps fulfilling the prime directive for writers of writing about what you know.

"Cantoras," literally "women who sing," is, it seems, a Uruguayan term for lesbians. As a book title, I suppose it has a bit more resonance than "Lesbians."

The five cantoras of the novel are Flaca, Romina, Anita (aka La Venus), Paz, and Malena. The five take a trip together to an isolated and sparsely inhabited Uruguayan cape called Cabo Polonio. They set up in an abandoned shack on the coast and it becomes their sanctuary. In time, they come up with a plan to buy the shack and repair it to make it more habitable. It will continue throughout the years to be their safe place.

These are not rich women and they have difficulty coming up with enough money to buy the place, but Malena, the quiet one in the group, says that she will get the amount that they are short. And she does. None of the other women seem especially curious as to what she did to get that money.

They purchase the property in all of their names. They are to be equal owners even though some contributed more to the purchase price than others. Paz, who is still a teenager escaping from a home where she is misunderstood and unappreciated, has little money at all to contribute, but it was her idea to buy the place, suggested to her by one of the locals who had befriended her.  

Of the five women in the group, I confess I felt the most compassion and empathy for Paz and Malena. Although I certainly felt sympathy for the mistreatment by society of the other three women, I just didn't find their personalities to be particularly admirable or something that I could easily identify with.

In 1977, a military dictatorship was in power in Uruguay and it brutally crushed political dissent. The human rights of its citizens were disregarded and people were arrested without cause, locked away where their families couldn't find them, tortured, and sometimes disappeared altogether. Homosexuality was a crime to be ruthlessly punished, so it was in that atmosphere that these five women had banded together. Through the next forty years, they became each other's family and continued to support and sustain each other through all the trials of their lives, and through the serial affairs of each member. Some of the other partners in those affairs became like extended family. We see the evolution of Uruguayan society through these years until finally, Romina is able to marry her longtime companion and she is elected to political office, after being an activist for change for many years.

I wanted to like this book, and indeed, there was much to like about it, but I found that I just couldn't get into it in the way I had hoped to. Toward the end, I found myself rushing through, bored with all the mind-blowing sex and the repetitious odes to female friendship. It certainly was not a bad book, but it didn't live up to my hopes for it.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


  1. Ohh nooo. Too bad about this novel ... I actually bought an e-book copy of it not long ago ... and like you had high hopes for it ... but I haven't started it yet ... and it's not sounding like maybe I can relate either ?

    1. Other bloggers that I follow have read the book and raved about it, so don't necessarily let my opinion prejudice you against it. Your reaction might be quite different.

  2. I had heard about this book. It sounds important. Gays and lesbians have faced indescribable discrimination and violence wherever one looks. Under these dictatorships it must have been so much worse then in other societies.

    Though there is a ways to go everywhere, it is good that there has been real improvement in recent years as reflected in the book.

    1. There certainly has been some advance in the acceptance of homosexual relationships, although ill treatment and even violence by bigots still blot the record of any progress made. Sadly, it seems that some members of the human race will always need someone to be the "other," someone to whom they can feel superior.

  3. I'm sorry the book did not completely give you the enjoyment you hoped for.

    1. I can't really explain why it left me flat. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood for it. That happens sometimes.


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