In 2019, I picked up the Book of the Month edition of The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys. I’ve been itching to read it ever since, and finally, while doing my Spain reading challenge this month, I decided now was the time. This novel, on the cusp between Adult and Young Adult fiction, takes place in Madrid in the 1950s. It’s about the dangers and dark secrets lurking in Francisco Franco’s Spain and what one American boy will learn during a summer in the capital.
Daniel Matheson is the son of an oil tycoon and an immigrant mother. Half Spanish, he grew up in Texas, and summer 1957 is his first time visiting Spain. While in Madrid, he plans to take some stunning photos that he can add to his portfolio, one that will hopefully win him the Magnum Photography Prize and open up a path to his dream career. He soon meets Ana, who works at the hotel where his family is staying, and they begin a tentative friendship. However, Ana is keeping many secrets—both about her family’s past and about what she’s gone through. Daniel has a lot to learn about how dangerous Francisco Franco’s Spain truly is. Through his revealing photographs and the tidbits he gleans from Ana and her family, Daniel will be irrevocably changed by his time in sunny Spain.
The Fountains of Silence is immediately engrossing. With numerous short chapters following a range of characters, it’s fast-paced and goes by quickly, even as it builds up a smart and multilayered story. Daniel Matheson, a Spanish-American teenager visiting Spain for the first time, is the main character, and we look at Madrid through his naive eyes. However, we also get chapters focusing on Ana, who works at the hotel; her brother Rafael (Rafa), who has dreams of bullfighting glory; and their cousin Purificación (Puri), who volunteers at a nunnery. These latter three characters have lived their whole lives in Spain, and they offer a very different perspective on their country than Daniel has as a tourist.
At first, I thought it was odd to have the main character be from Texas. Although his mother is Spanish, Daniel is essentially an outsider looking in. Why not learn about Spain through a Spaniard’s eyes? However, I quickly found that this was exactly the kind of perspective this novel needed. It’s all about how people hide life-or-death secrets, how Spain had this aura of being a touristic paradise despite the hidden horrors. Through Daniel’s photography, he stumbles on the secrets Spain doesn’t want to get out, especially to the rest of the world. And through the characters of Ana, Rafa, and Puri—and through Daniel’s getting to know them—we get a richer and more nuanced view of Franco’s Spain. This book is set in 1957, some 20 years after the Spanish Civil War. But even after all those years, it was still very dangerous for anyone who was on the opposing side during that war, or whose family was. Secrets about your family could have horrific consequences if they got out.
There is an underlying issue that comes into focus later in the novel. I won’t spoil it for you, but it is shocking, horrific, and entirely based in reality. (Incidentally, the same issue came up in the previous book I read, though with a slightly different focus on who was a victim. Indeed, there were many victims during this time.) It’s an issue that deserves further attention and research, and I’m glad this book brought it up.
The Fountains of Silence is a long book at nearly 500 pages, but it flies by. In part, this is due to how short the chapters are. They have a momentum and lightness that propels the story forward, even with its numerous themes and characters. Despite how weighty the subject matter can be and how much historical detail there is, it’s an easy and captivating narrative. I also love the pieces of historical documents that appear between chapters, including excerpts of articles, correspondences, and more. They addd extra insight into what has happening during the time period, with a range of perspectives on Spain and Spanish people in that era.
The writing style, too, makes this novel digestible. Ruta Sepetys is often described as writing on the cusp between YA and Adult fiction. For me, I appreciated that it felt more mature. It focuses on younger characters, in their late teens or early 20s, but the themes are fairly dark, and towards the end it jumps forward in time, making it feel more adult.
Daniel and Ana make for wonderful leads who are likable and kind yet tenacious. Rafa is fun and lightens the mood, even though some arcs turn grim. Puri is perhaps the most gray character: She’s good-hearted and curious, but so brainwashed, too. I enjoyed getting to know all of them. The book closes with an open enough ending that I would love to read a sequel!
The Fountains of Silence is a fast-paced, thought-provoking, heart-breaking novel, but it’s also filled with love and hope. I really enjoyed this, and I can’t wait to read more from Ruta Sepetys. Hopefully a followup to this one?
I already have two more of her novels: Salt to the Sea and I Must Betray You. A year or so ago, I also saw the movie Ashes in the Snow, an adaptation of her book, Between Shades of Gray; that’s another novel I’ll plan to read soon! Stay tuned for my reviews of all.
Get the Book
You can buy The Fountains of Silence here – it’s available as a hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
|The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys|
|Audience||Young Adult; Adult|
|Number of Pages||480|
|Format I Read||Hardcover (BOTM)|
|Original Publication Date||October 1, 2019|
A portrait of love, silence, and secrets under a Spanish dictatorship.
Madrid, 1957. Under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Spain is hiding a dark secret. Meanwhile, tourists and foreign businessmen flood into Spain under the welcoming promise of sunshine and wine. Among them is eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of an oil tycoon, who arrives in Madrid with his parents hoping to connect with the country of his mother’s birth through the lens of his camera. Photography–and fate–introduce him to Ana, whose family’s interweaving obstacles reveal the lingering grasp of the Spanish Civil War–as well as chilling definitions of fortune and fear. Daniel’s photographs leave him with uncomfortable questions amidst shadows of danger. He is backed into a corner of difficult decisions to protect those he loves. Lives and hearts collide, revealing an incredibly dark side to the sunny Spanish city.
Includes vintage media reports, oral history commentary, photos, and more.
About the Author
Ruta Sepetys (Rūta Šepetys) is an internationally acclaimed, #1 New York Times bestselling author of historical fiction published in over sixty countries and forty languages. Sepetys is considered a “crossover” novelist as her books are read by both students and adults worldwide. Winner of the Carnegie Medal, Ruta is renowned for giving voice to underrepresented history and those who experienced it. Her books have won or been shortlisted for over forty book prizes, are included on over thirty state reading lists, and are currently in development for film and television.
Ruta is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. Born in Michigan, she was raised in a family of artists, readers, and music lovers. Ruta is passionate about the power of history and story to foster global dialogue and connectivity. She has been invited to present at NATO, European Parliament, the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, and Embassies worldwide. She was awarded The Rockefeller Foundation’s prestigious Bellagio Fellowship for her studies on human resilience. The New York Times Book Review declared, “Ruta Sepetys acts as champion of the interstitial people so often ignored—whole populations lost in the cracks of history.”
Ruta was bestowed the Cross of the Knight of the Order by the President of Lithuania for her contributions to education and memory preservation and was recently honored with a postage stamp containing her image. She is extremely proud to be of Baltic heritage, even if that means she has a name no one can pronounce.
Ruta lives with her family in the hills of Tennessee.
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