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Bolívar: American Liberator
by Marie Arana
624 pages
Simon & Schuster
Published: April 2013

Bolívar: American Liberator” by Marie Arana was published in 2013 to wide acclaim. Arana is a Peruvian-American author of both fiction and non-fiction. She has written for The New York Times and Time Magazine and served as editor-in-chief of the Washington Post’s book review section. Her latest book “Silver, Sword and Stone” offers a sweeping review of Latin American history.

Like many of the individuals I read about, Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) seems to be a biographer’s dream. He was born into wealth but died destitute, lost his parents at an early age, traveled the world as a youth, lost his new bride to disease, liberated six countries from Spanish rule, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt and enjoyed a spirited romantic life.

Nevertheless, this is a biography about which I feel surprisingly ambivalent. Its strengths are notable – and quickly obvious. Its weaknesses, however, are sometimes subtle and difficult to articulate.

Arana captures Bolívar’s life and personality with dexterity and often-enchanting prose. But her writing style is inconsistent, ranging from lyrical and descriptive to hurried and superficial. And where one passage might place the reader on a beautifully-described vista with the book’s hero, the next paragraph could easily be a series of facts strung impassively together.

No one can argue that the 464-page narrative fails to cover impressive ground. In fact it is hard to imagine an author accomplishing so much with this amount of space. But while the reader is treated to a fascinating review of Bolivar’s life there is a persistent feeling of not getting the whole story – that for all the biography offers, there is a great deal that is untold…or unknown.

It is rare that I learn so much about a biographical subject and still feel like I hardly know him or her. And it is not often I wish a book had productively been at least twice as long.

Some readers will fault Arana for penning a biography that is too adoring of “the George Washington of South America”. But she injects more than sufficient evidence to indict Bolívar for a wide variety of transgressions and misdeeds. He did not lead a faultless life and no one can avoid seeing the colorful accounts of his arrogance, habitual womanizing and occasional brutality.

Arana intermittently provides rich context as her subject travels the world and, later, takes on the Spanish empire. But readers who are not well-versed in Latin or South American history will find it difficult (or impossible) to appreciate all of the tensions of his time and place. And the number of unfamiliar characters who move in and out of Bolivar’s life can be dizzying.

And although the book ends with a helpful review of Bolívar’s life and legacy, one simple tweak in organizational style could have made an enormous difference in my comprehension along the way: the inclusion of introductory and concluding paragraphs to serve as a high-level preview, and review, of key messages in each chapter.

Overall, Marie Arana has painted a nice portrait of a remarkably captivating and compelling character. Readers already familiar with Bolívar’s world are likely to appreciate this book in a way I could not, while those lacking my patience and perseverance will almost certainly grade it lower. But in the end while “Bolívar: American Liberator” is more than satisfactory, it is not fully satisfying.

Overall rating: 3¾ stars