Two powerful women dominate this unusual novel, which takes place against a surreal landscape of pre-World War II Europe and South America.
Beautiful, predatory and willful, Donna Dora is subject to monumental rages. A wrinkle on a bed sheet can set her off. Traveling with her new husband to South America, a pregnant Donna refuses to disembark and returns to Italy. Home in her white villa, she leads an extravagantly self-absorbed life. She wears capes of silk roses, dresses of gold gauze. She collects ancient coins and lovers. One of her most devoted suitors mercifully pays far more attention to Dora's two children, offspring of her mostly absent husband, than she does.
Antonia, Dora's daughter, grows up a mysterious and beautiful plant in this bizarre household. Oddly she claims not to hate her mother. But in a liberating act she escapes from Dora's neurotic zone and voyages to the mythical land of Yayaku in South America without her new husband. He follows later.
A Cloud on Sand is an ambitious, at times original, but flawed first novel. De Ferrari is a talented but still self-conscious writer. And her jumping back and forth in time muddies the narrative flow. De Ferrari, a Peruvian who currently lives in New York City, is an art historian by profession. As she explains in her preface, by the time a cloud is reflected in sand, the image is already changing. Her characters change like clouds too. But De Ferrari fails to make their sometimes surreal journey through life believable. (Knopf, $19.95)