The Last Valentine by Felix Alexander is set on the island of Puerto Rico in 1935. Chief Inspector Guillermo Sedeno suspects his long-time rival, Inspector Javier Villalobos, stole a crucial piece of evidence in an unsolved murder case, an unsigned blood-stained love letter. After the love letter falls into the hands of young Olivia Esperanza Villalobos, she and her dearest friend Isaac Quintero set out in search of the Labyrinth of Love Letters, unaware that the chain of events their investigation set into motion will change so many lives.
The writing in The Last Valentine by Felix Alexander is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. It was lyrical, poetic, full of overlapping characters and stories started in one section that are not finished until later if at all. It was like reading a dream and I was carried away.
One point that detracted from the story was the number of persistent errors. Olivia, as a romantic heroine is apt to do, often lay down on her bed. Several times the author made the grammatical error of saying Olivia lied down in bed or lied awake. (Lay vs. Lie (vs. Laid) There were several apostrophes versus plural errors (ranting’s) and incorrect use of it’s rather than its, (See Apostrophes Rule 2b), as well as a few humorous homophone mistakes. (He went on a steak out. What was his roll in the crime?)
A few items that were referred to were out of place in a novel set in Puerto Rico in the 1930s. Olivia’s self-conscious reaction about her belief in the Labyrinth of Love Letters is compared to the feeling of being the last of her friends to discover Santa doesn’t exist. Although the island had been under US military control since 1898, and English was mandated as the official language since 1917, I wouldn’t think that Santa Claus would have been a popular figure in Puerto Rico at the time. Even today, most of Latin America still receive their gifts from Los Reyes Magos on January 6th rather than a visit from Santa. (See Three Kings Day in Puerto Rico) Appropriate mention is given to El Dia de los Reyes later in the book as one of the most important religious holidays in Puerto Rico.
Another issue was the name of one of the married women. Carmen Alicia de la Vega was married to Fernando Gonzalo de la Vega. Although women commonly take their husband’s name after marriage in the United States, this is NOT a custom in Puerto Rico. Therefore Carmen Alicia, being a “woman of status” before marriage would not assume her husband’s name no matter how prestigious he was. Instead, she would keep both her maiden last names (her father’s and her mother’s) and add the word “de” followed by her husband’s name indicating her married status. (See Naming customs of Hispanic America) Of course, it would be a bit cumbersome to be known as Carmen Alicia Gonzalez Reyes de De la Vega, for example. Nonetheless, this is the custom. Another female character is mistakenly referred to repeatedly as Angelica de las Fuentes. However, her full name was Angelica Montana de las Fuentes. De las Fuentes would have been her mother’s last name and the abbreviated form should have been Angelica Montana. Yet she was reportedly the daughter of Don (Sir) Enrique de las Fuentes. Therefore, her name should have been written as Angelica de las Fuentes Montana.
This custom of carrying both the father’s and the mother’s name into the next generation would have been helpful in unraveling the intricately woven relationship between the characters. For example, it would have been useful to know that Inspector Guillermo Sedena’s second last name was Colon.
Then there is the mortician who prepared the dead for the ferryman and placed two coins on the eyes sockets before sealing the casket. Again, I found this incongruent to the context of the story. The placing of coins on the eyes of a dead body began so that the dearly departed could pay the ferryman Charon to cross the river Styx, a decidedly Greek tradition. (See Why do they place coins on the eyes of the dead?) I thought perhaps there was a similar belief held by the Taino people, the original inhabitants of the island, however, I could not find one. (See Taino spirituality) So I was baffled by this action. It may have been that just as Isaac’s uncle was well versed in the Greek gods, the mortician may have been similarly educated. Had he developed an affinity with Charon the ferryman because of his profession and this affinity prompted the coins? It wasn’t explained.
I found the mention of La Llorona to be consistent with the story found throughout Latin America. (See La Llorona returns) On the other hand, El Cucuy, the boogeyman that comes for disobedient children, is better known as El Cuco in Puerto Rico. El Cucuy apparently only gathers up disobedient Mexican children. Another legend was left unexplained. I was unable to find anything that would indicate what the story of “Las Lagrimas Perdidas (the lost tears) from a small town in southern Spain” might refer to. I would have been interested in hearing how that legend fit into this story.
I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars despite the issues previously mentioned. It really was a lovely, poetic story. It would appeal to the romantics of any age. Realists might get hung up on the details. Perhaps I’m a realistic romantic then.
Read more about this book here. Get your own copy here. This book was an OnlineBookClub.org Book of the Day.