After her husband gets a job transfer, twenty-something Emma goes on an open-ended adventure, relocating from New York to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Now officially an "expatriate," Emma must quickly adapt to her changed circumstances. Depicting Emma in pitiful befuddlement, MacKenzie tunnels us back into Emma's past, describing the seeds of her initial love affair with a man who offered her solace in the form of financial security. His generosity initiates a chain of events that gradually transform Emma, eventually bringing her to this chaotic city of flags and soccer matches that play endlessly on flat-screen televisions.
Sao Paulo may have a seductive and "electric chartreuse glow," but this mega-city is rife with gangland killings, labor strikes, and carjackings. At first Emma knows only rich Brazilians, "because of my husband's job." When they are robbed after leaving an exclusive restaurant, she is plunged into the less salubrious parts of the city. The incident forces Emma to think about the street boys as well as the culture of violence: "a world of dark streets, arbitrary punishment, and deprivation."
Although Emma's voice is consistently eloquent, her sensibility strikes us as distracted, a kind of cypher for the world around her. As Emma waxes articulate over the concrete vastness of Sao Paulo as seen from above, a sort of otherworldly place "overgrown with crops of high-rise condominiums" extending endlessly while poverty radiates outward to the edges of the city, she mostly lets her husband do the talking. In an effort to be included, Emma attempts to learn Portuguese, befriending vaguely glamorous Marcos and Iara, who belong to Sao Paulo's professional gallery circuit.
By day, Emma's observes the servant class--housekeepers, nannies, dog walkers, and cooks who constantly come and go. At night, she sits on her balcony, watching the unobstructed cinematic views of distant street corners. Emma thinks about her life back in New York. She lacks the housewife gene; if it weren't for her husband, she would have been in New York "authoring a fresh tweet about an exciting new blend of cement." Though her husband often works late, she knows little about what he actually does. Emma's affection is reciprocated, yet the very possibility of a child turns into an argument, a dispute that comes to the molten core of their marriage: "I did not feel the native urge most women felt. I saw only complication and peril."
Sao Paulo is a violent and corrupt landscape where wealth and poverty are juxtaposed with the city's failing economy, its favelas, high-rise apartments, and salubrious opera house. The middle-class are a moving target confronted with opportunists of every stripe. When Emma begins a job as an English tutor, meeting beautiful Claudia and her teenage son, Luciano, she discovers that politics are mired with the finer points of language. In a local labor demonstration, Emma sees the reckless cruelty of the police. She thinks about the night she and her husband were robbed. Would she have been attacked if she were with Marcos?
MacKenzie offers a fascinating depiction of a city on edge. Less enthralling is Emma. Her unquestioning acceptance of her life left me cold. Although she's educated and intelligent, she's not the most compelling of characters (although I suspect that this was perhaps MacKenzie's point). Nonetheless, the author paints a different portrait of her compassion and the pain of her personal inconstancies when she volunteers to help a group of needy, occasionally impatient Haitian immigrants.
Emma spends a lot of emotional capital engaged in a linear exploration of time. She also makes an attempt to excavate her own past as she tries to come to terms with the present and with a husband who wants a child. Amid this great, dark city where the "checkerboards of light" in the apartment buildings house millions and millions of lives, Emma is finally driven to ask: are we victims, or are we the perpetrators?