EW talks YA: The Fountains of Silence is a staggering tale of love, loss, and national shame
EW is here to provide reviews and recommendations for the biggest new YA titles. This month, we’ve zeroed in on one of the very best teen tales of the fall. Check out our review below, and in case you missed our column from last month, we’ve got you covered.
Ruta Sepetys is considered a “crossover” author, meaning that though she writes YA, her books hold broad appeal for both kids and adults. This designation is perhaps a fundamental misunderstanding of just how many adults read YA broadly in general, but it’s also a testament to the mature themes and lyrical writing inherent to a Sepetys novel. The Fountains of Silence is no exception to this — a staggering tale of love, loss, and national shame.
Taking place primarily in Madrid in 1957, the novel follows 18-year-old Daniel Matheson, the Texan son of an oil tycoon, who finds romance and inspiration for his dreams of pursuing a career in photography in the Spain of General Francisco Franco. There, his life intersects with everyone from diplomats to young hotel employee Ana, whose family has been forced into a life of poverty and fear after her parents were executed for their Republican leanings during the Spanish Civil War. Though these are our two main characters, we also follow the likes of Ana’s brother Rafa, cousin Puri, and sister Julia, all of whose lives have been touched irrevocably by the long shadows of war and fascism.
Sepetys gets into the deep, dark corners of each of their lives, tapping into truths about the repercussions of war and the cost of silence. She uses a sweeping love story, cast against a backdrop of people just trying to survive, to explore one of Spain’s worst secrets. She builds to this atrocity with creeping acuity, nailing the slow horrors of the situation as suspicions and fear build into crippling certainty.
The novel pulses with historical detail, from the dusty streets of the impoverished Vallecas to the untold wealth and entitlement within the Castellana Hilton, an oasis of glamour plopped amidst a city gripped by fear, authoritarianism, and violence. Through the lens of his camera, Daniel begins to cobble together an image of the real Spain and the canyon that exists between the image presented to wealthy Americans making nice with Franco and the dire circumstances of the people living there. But Sepetys never leans into their tragedy in an exploitative way, instead always pulling Daniel back from the brink of it, crafting a crucial story about class, identity, and the struggle to get inside a life so far from one’s own. She nails the push and pull between observer and doer, never criticizing Daniel for his outsider’s perspective, but refusing to let Daniel or the reader forget it either.
Sepetys has a gift for breathing life into a historical time and place, making the sights, sounds, and smells of a time long-past come alive with vim and vigor. Her pacing is adept, weaving a slow-burn love story through a bigger tale of a nation coming to grips with its darkest secrets. One never takes away from the other, but instead only enhances it – the aching young love grows alongside the cast of characters’ journey to rebellion, realization, and acceptance. She carries the reader back in time for an intoxicating and startling glimpse of an era largely obscured from history, revealing the beauty of true connection amidst an unflinching look at the struggles of post-war Spain. Sepetys triumphs with this towering work of historical insight, somehow managing to both devastate and give you faith in the expansive generosity of the human spirit. To paraphrase another great war story, the problems of two young lovers might not amount to a hill of beans in this world, but Sepetys proves resoundingly that they’re what make life worth living. A