Marta Rivera de la Cruz's latest novel, La importancia de las cosas, underlines the author's talent for narrating a story and keeping the reader enthralled to the end. The finalist for the Premio Planeta prize in 2006 for her novel En tiempo de prodigios once again demonstrates her astute portrayal of human relationships and people's need to establish connections in an otherwise alienating world.
La importancia de las cosas opens with the suicide of Fernando Montalvo, a loner with a predilection for collecting, at first glance, random things. Mario Menkell, his landlord, is contacted by the agency through which Montalvo rented the apartment, and is told that he will be responsible for deciding what to do with the deceased's possessions because he had no next of kin. Menkell, who had employed a rental agency so that he would have no contact whatsoever with his tenant, is now forced to examine with great care, the minutiae that formed Montalvo's life. Menkell enlists the aid of his colleague, Beatriz Millares, who has separated from her husband and accepts Menkell's generous offer to live rent free in Montalvo's apartment. Menkell, who has secretly loved Beatriz for years but has never dared to express his sentiments, is ecstatic that the two will be working closely together. Montalvo's apartment is located within the big house where Menkel lives and the two quickly establish a routine that ensures many contact hours together. Rivera de la Cruz's description of the development of the relationship between the two colleagues is quite touching and maintains the reader's interest throughout the novel. The two become detectives while organizing Montalvo's things and unravel his many secrets, which involve travel to various cities in Europe and contact with a wonderful cast of supporting characters. The novel's title emphasizes the importance of the couple's discoveries and how it is not necessarily material mundane objects themselves that are important but rather the significance behind them as established by the owners. The novel's theme also underlines the adage: "one man's trash is another man's treasure."
Rivera de la Cruz does a wonderful job depicting the petty world of academia in a small private institution. It is obvious that the author is familiar with both the private university system in Spain and the American university system to which she compares it. Menkell, who had published one highly acclaimed novel, is hired by the private university Luis de Cameons to teach creative writing part-time to students who can afford the exorbitant fees but who are not exactly Ivy League material (Rivera de la Cruz's comparison). Rivera de la Cruz sharply criticizes a system that is based entirely on wealth and not on intellectual capacity or hard work and whose professors are at the complete mercy of their students. The dean, Claudio Saldaña, who detests Menkell, aspires to absolute power in the university, and fame and fortune. He embarks on an ambitious project to provide internships for his students at a renowned publishing house, but the condition, determined by the top editor, is that Menkell write a new novel. Saldaña threatens to fire Mario if he does not produce the said novel, a condition that no other professor is forced to meet. La importancia de las cosas skillfully alternates between Menkell's search for Montalvo's identity and his attempt to maintain his job at the university in spite of [End Page 721] the internal politics involved. Anyone who has worked in academe can easily identify with Menkell's troubles and the arbitrariness with which decisions are often made in this venue.
Rivera de la Cruz artfully portrays Menkell's angst upon being forced to generate a novel and the process entailed in picking out the subject matter. He does not understand the success of his first novel because he was just relating the story of his uncle's adventures, part of his family's lore that was passed down from his mother...