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Dan Jakel
Madam Josefina's Social House
Dan Jakel, author

A Spanish aristocrat is accused of a horrible crime, and flees the country in a state of devastation. She takes refuge in a brothel of Buenos Aires, working as its bookkeeper. While rebuilding her life, she discovers a murderous conspiracy between corrupt government officials. To save innocent citizens she must out-wit and out-last powerful men and their minions, risking the lives of those she has come to love. This story takes the reader from the enduring poverty of rural Spain, to the overcrowded tenants of Buenos Aires, and a brothel, where tango is danced, passion leads to indiscretion, and destinies collide.

Jakel’s debut sets a historical melodrama of love, betrayal, and bombings in the Argentina of the first decade of the twentieth century, a time of political unrest, anarchist newspapers, government corruption, and shifting social norms—“Respectable ladies can’t dance Tango in Buenos Aires,” one character tuts. The brothel at the novel’s heart is the unexpected new home of 24-year-old Sofia, a woman of bourgeois background but radical political leanings, brought into the country by her uncle, an Argentine senator, after the murder of Sofia’s parents. Senator Hugo Montserrat realizes that Sofia’s cleverness will be a problem for his plans to secure inheritance of her parents’ ranch, especially as she becomes suspicious about the circumstances of her parents’ deaths, so he sends her off to Madam Josefina, where Sofia quickly becomes a bookkeeper tutored “through the Machiavellian ways of a brothel madam.”

The novel bursts with life and culture. As the masterpiece Teatro Colón opera house is raised in Buenos Aires, and Sofia falls in love with a man and the tango, the powers that be—including commander of the investigative division of the Police of the Capital—jockey for power and wealth, willing to do anything to secure their positions, right up to staging the kind of anarchist violence that they inveigh against. Despite the cruelties of its owner, the brothel affords Sofia an education, disillusioning her in ways that her dabbling with secessionist editorials in anarchist newspapers couldn’t. Her love of the tango inspires the richest prose, and her wiliness powers the plot.

Jakel’s storytelling favors ruminative flashbacks and colloquies that edge toward the explanatory. Scenes and key moments of action tend to be understated, while musings about them later—such as a murderer rationalizing that, since he kills in fits of rage, he “lacked full knowledge of his actions” so they couldn’t be “mortal sin”s. The pacing is uneven, but the politics and culture are vividly drawn, and Jakel lays bare his characters’ hearts.

Takeaway: Historical melodrama of 1900s Buenos Aires corruption and the politics of dancing.

Comparable Titles: Carolina De Robertis’s The Gods of Tango, Lloyd Jones’s Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: B+
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: A-