Cora would be an easy target for satire, but Bensimon refuses; her impulse is not to mock Cora, but to understand her. At the same time, she uses Cora’s blind spots, seemingly, to encourage the reader to think more widely and critically about the political realities that Cora herself doesn’t understand.
Take Cora’s shoes. She wears calf-high Dr. Martens, brand new ones “for which I had paid a small fortune in one of the brand’s stores in Paris.” Early in the novel, a gaucho informs her that her boots were meant for a man. Cora, understandably, is annoyed. “It was too much,” she thinks, “to expect their counter-cultural connotation would penetrate someone who, at best, had seen boots like this protecting the feet of the military police as they shot rubber bullets into the tents of the Landless Workers’ Movement. That’s the problem with fashion: You depend on others.”
The Landless Workers’ Movement is one of the biggest left-wing groups in Latin America, fighting for agrarian reform and democratic access to food production. To the gaucho, land issues would be life-defining: Does he work on a large corporate ranch? Does he—could he ever—own land? To Cora, though, the Landless Workers’ Movement is just a reference, maybe a half-remembered newspaper photo. Bensimon complicates the moment beautifully. The gaucho, who speaks in the voice of patriarchy and homophobia, intrudes on Cora’s world. But Cora, too, is an intruder, unmoved by the land and its troubles and flippant about the military police.
Read: A road trip that doubles as a journey through the painful past
To Cora, the most upsetting part of the encounter with the gaucho isn’t his gender policing, but the fact that after, she’s not sure “exactly what Julia thought of it all.” Cora never knows what Julia thinks, and Bensimon never gives the reader clues, instead staying in Cora’s head. As the trip progresses, this becomes crucial to the novel’s stakes. Julia quickly demonstrates her sexual interest in Cora, but the extent of her romantic interest remains a mystery.
The more Cora agonizes over her future with Julia, the more Bensimon directs the reader’s attention outside the car. The novel’s political observations become sharper and more frequent, serving as a counterpoint to its protagonist’s narrowing focus. However, these observations never jolt Cora out of character. In a particularly excellent moment, Cora distracts herself from nerves about meeting Julia’s brother by condemning a soya field they drive through en route to his house. Looking at the soy plants makes “Monsanto and monoculture instantly spring to mind. No one with a free spirit would believe in things like Monsanto and monoculture.”
Bensimon walks a fine line here. Even a reader vehemently opposed to industrialized agriculture could laugh at the line, No one with a free spirit would believe in Monsanto. Still, it’s easy to empathize with the aggravating Cora. She’s in a torturous position: in love with a woman who’s glad to have sex with her, but dodging the possibility of more. Cora’s crack about Monsanto reminds the reader that there are far bigger problems in Rio Grande do Sul than unrequited love, but it also serves to spare Cora pain.