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On a Night of a Thousand Stars
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New York, 1998. Santiago Larrea, a wealthy Argentine diplomat, is holding court alongside his wife, Lila, and their daughter, Paloma, a college student and budding jewelry designer, at their annual summer polo match and soiree. All seems perfect in the Larreas’ world—until an unexpected party guest from Santiago's university days shakes his usually unflappable demeanor. The woman's cryptic comments spark Paloma’s curiosity about her father’s past, of which she knows little.
When the family travels to Buenos Aires for Santiago's UN ambassadorial appointment, Paloma is determined to learn more about his life in the years leading up to the military dictatorship of 1976. With the help of a local university student, Franco Bonetti, an activist member of H.I.J.O.S.—a group whose members are the children of the desaparecidos, or the “disappeared,” men and women who were forcibly disappeared by the state during Argentina’s “Dirty War”—Paloma unleashes a chain of events that not only leads her to question her family and her identity, but also puts her life in danger.
In compelling fashion, On a Night of a Thousand Stars speaks to relationships, morality, and identity during a brutal period in Argentinian history, and the understanding—and redemption—people crave in the face of tragedy.
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I stood a short distance from the polo field observing my father, Santiago Larrea, gallop furiously alongside one of his rivals. Plenty of room remained in the stands at the Southampton Polo Club but, like the players’ spouses and friends, I preferred the view from ground level, where I could feel the thundering of hooves, the thwack of mallet on ball, and the churn of mud and grass. Beyond the field, a vista of dense woods seemed to thin out with each passing year, as moneyed New Yorkers continued to fill all available acreage and airspace on the south fork of Long Island with enormous summer homes.
I had arrived late, and now I glanced at the scoreboard. The teams were tied. As always, Dad’s team included a couple of ringers he had flown up from his home country of Argentina. Being invited to play for a season on Santiago Larrea’s team in the Hamptons was an opportunity that few Argentinian players on the polo circuit could resist. Dad was admired by his fellow countrymen not only for being a top amateur polo player but also for his decades of success as an investor on Wall Street, where he was known for his ability not merely to dodge, but also to anticipate, the region’s recurring crises.
The opponent tried to hook Dad’s mallet, but the maneuver caused his pony to stumble, and my father pulled ahead. A teammate swiftly smacked the ball his way. My father kicked the underside of his favorite pony, Charlie, and bent to the right to begin his backswing, his torso nearly parallel to the ground. The mallet struck the ball straight through the goal posts.
Seconds later, the bell rang, indicating the end of the last chukker and the match. Dad sat back up, patting Charlie’s neck as his teammates trotted in a circle around their captain, clicking their mallets high in the air.
The players on Dad’s team rode to the tent at the end of the field that had been set up with folding chairs and a large white cooler of drinks. Dad dismounted and turned to my mother, who had just left her coterie of girlfriends to join him. The assembled ladies had donned their best tournament attire for the occasion, including an array of bright-colored ruffled dresses and an array of hats, from Jacquemus to bolero. Mom had opted for a long, celestial-blue summer dress and espadrilles.
“Lila, did you see that final shot?” my dad asked my mom. “Unbelievably close, but we pulled it off, didn’t we, Charlie?” He stroked the pony’s snout. As usual, he had saved his best pony for the crucial moments of the last chukker. The steed was dripping with sweat, and Dad handed the reins to one of the grooms.
“You played very well, my dear. You always do,” Mom said, handing him a glass of iced tea. He took a long drink.
I picked up my weekend bag and entered the tent. They turned to greet me, but my mother’s smile inverted slightly when she saw I was not dressed for the occasion. It was usually acceptable to attend a polo match wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but not at the big charity tournaments as on this particular weekend. Full skirts or dresses below the knee were the norm for women, while men sported khakis, button-down shirts, and blazers. I chose to ignore her frown and kissed her.
“Where have you been, darling?” Dad asked, wiping his sweaty brow with a riding glove before kissing me too. “We thought you were coming out yesterday.” My father was unfazed seeing me in a pair of ripped jeans. He wouldn’t have cared if I had shown up in sweatpants. He was always happy to see his only child.
I grinned up at him. “I missed my connecting train, but I caught the last chukker. You were great!” It was the summer between my junior and senior years of college, and I had been living with my friend Emily in a sublet in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Express trains to the Hamptons from Atlantic Terminal were infrequent, even at the height of the summer season.
Juan Godoy, one of Dad’s players, approached us with a relaxed, bow-legged gait, the result of riding horses since before he learned how to walk.
“Paloma. You are here, finally!” Juan said with a pronounced accent, unbuckling the chinstrap on his riding helmet. His dirty blond hair lay flattened to his forehead.
“Hello, Juan,” I said with a smile. “You know I only come to one of these things per season. And only for my dad.”
When I first met Juan a few weeks ago at my family’s home in Manhattan, he had ignored the unspoken dress code for the dinner party, showing up in a pair of slim-fitting jeans and white T-shirt under a beige linen blazer. He spent most of the evening chatting up an Argentinian actress who was in town promoting a film she’d made with the guest of honor, a well-known Spanish director. So I was surprised when, at the end of the party, Juan sought me out to ask if I would show him around Central Park. His sun-bleached hair flopped down over his honey-brown eyes, firmly centered on mine, seeming to know the answer before I uttered it.
“Well played, Juan,” my father said, still beaming from their exploits on the field.
“This has been an amazing season,” he said. “I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity to play on your team.”
“You’ll be at the party tonight, yes?” my mother asked Juan.
“It would be my pleasure to spend an evening in the company of the Larrea ladies.” Juan touched my shoulder lightly. “Come with me to check on the ponies?” Polo players generally bring at least eight ponies to a match. The six chukkers last only seven minutes each, but that is long enough to exhaust a pony that continuously gallops across the length of a 300-yard field.
The visiting ponies were taken to the trailers, but Dad and his team had use of the stables on the club’s grounds. I picked up my bag, but Juan swiftly insisted on carrying it for me. The chivalrous gesture marked one more way in which he differed from most men I had dated up until then. I didn’t see myself with him forever, and though he was in his late twenties, seven years older than I was, I doubt he did either. Yet our fling offered a reprieve from the doldrums of a summer in New York City.
“I’ve missed you,” he said, grabbing my hand. “I was lonely at the dinner last night. And you didn’t come out to watch our match earlier this week. You’re my good luck charm, you know.”
“But you won them without me anyway. So it seems you have plenty of good luck charms.”
His scent was a pungent mixture of sweat and oiled leather from the horse saddle, sheer masculinity emanating from every pore. The thought made me want to laugh out loud. Instead, I bit my cheek, and, hand in hand, we headed to the stables.
* * *
Later that afternoon, more than a hundred guests descended on my parents’ summer home, gathering for cocktails on the manicured lawn that sloped gently from the sprawling cedar-shingle structure toward the sea. Every summer, my parents hosted their friends and business acquaintances to a traditional asado, an Argentine barbecue, on a night after one of the major polo tournaments.
I was still in my bedroom, where I slid into a sleeveless, black linen dress as the guests arrived. My dark hair, wet from the shower, was pulled back in a messy chignon, my bangs to the side. I picked up a pair of dangling sea-glass earrings and eyed them critically. The wiring was imperfect, but they were one of my first designs and I cherished them.
I had discovered jewelry-making only a couple of years earlier, during the fall of my sophomore year at a small liberal arts college in New England. I was majoring in literature and had little experience in design or craft-making, but decided to sign up for an arts elective in an attempt to stave off the ennui of another long winter. I soon found that the creative process tamed a dull ache of apprehension I had carried inside from a small age. When a few friends began wearing my designs, my roommate Emily suggested that if I worked on the creations, she would find the customers. Emily, who was born to work in marketing, was my first true best friend, and I agreed. Not having thought much yet about what I would do after graduating from college, I fantasized about the two of us opening a boutique in New York.
I put on the earrings and steeled myself for the party. It didn’t matter how often I attended one of my parents’ events, I was never completely comfortable, and I realized now that I was also no longer really interested. What had once seemed a glamorous and mysterious milieu now felt like an obligation. After one final self-appraisal in the mirror, I made my way down the stairs.
When my parents had bought the beach house some fifteen years ago, my mother had lightened the rooms by installing larger windows and discarding the antique rugs. The expansive living room with its imposing fireplace now had sliding doors that opened onto a covered veranda. The most recent home improvement had entailed swapping out what Mom deemed the dull dark-brown dining room set for a natural blond wood table with cushioned wicker chairs for a more informal beach feel.
After greeting a few guests in the entrance hall, I whisked myself outside, past the blooming rhododendrons, toward the towering white tent erected on the far side of the lawn. Garlands of bistro lights crisscrossed the ceiling, and high round-top tables covered by white tablecloths were decorated with votive candles and small centerpieces of fresh flowers that my mother had ordered from a farm stand a month in advance. Women came in short or long dresses and delicate flat sandals. Their dates wore linen or khaki pants and colorful sports coats over button-down shirts, along with sockless loafers. Guests sipped champagne and feasted on empanadas passed around on silver trays by the catering staff. These turnovers filled with meat or cheese were the teasers before the main event—a series of different cuts of beef grilled to perfection by a grill master Dad flew in from Argentina every year for the occasion.
Dad enjoyed little more than the opportunity to show off his quincho, a purpose-built redbrick structure adjacent to the house that contained an enormous wood-fired parrilla. The ritual of grilling the meats provided guests with another form of entertainment in addition to the jazz and tango band. The smell of smoldering cuts and rising smoke drew a mesmerized crowd around the quincho. Watching the maestro (as Dad called him) expertly adjust the cooking temperature of the different cuts by raising or lowering the chain-suspended grates above the natural wood coals was its own spectacle.
My parents were conversing with a small group near the stage. Dad was in an impeccable navy-blue linen jacket and a crisp white shirt. Mom, who never missed a yoga class and religiously protected her skin from the sun by donning wide-brimmed hats and oversize sunglasses, looked much younger than her forty-two years. Tonight she wore a peach-colored silk summer dress over her willowy frame. Her hair was parted down the middle, falling to her bare shoulders.
Both my parents were from Argentina. While my father, like me, had dark features common among his Spanish ancestors, my mother, a granddaughter of British settlers of the Argentine Pampas, had green eyes and blond hair. Her creamy pale skin and faint lingering British mannerisms sometimes confused people. She would briefly explain her family’s background and their migration to Argentina after the turn of the century to look after the family’s agricultural interests. The European settlement is similar to what happened in the United States, Dad might add, as enchanted listeners nodded in understanding.
I reached my parents just as a family friend took the microphone from the bandleader and clinked his glass to call for silence.
“Good evening, everyone. My name is Michael Harris. I’m an old friend and business partner of our host Santiago. Ever since he first moved to New York from Buenos Aires, I’ve witnessed his many successes both off and on the polo fields.” He turned to my father. “I’m happy to say that tonight there’s something more to celebrate than just this incredible man, his beautiful family, and his prowess with a mallet—not to mention on the dance floor!” The crowd laughed again. “The official announcement will be in two weeks, with all the appropriate pomp and circumstance, I’m sure, but as a few of you already know, Santiago has been appointed Argentina’s ambassador to the United Nations.” A few oohs and aahs faded into loud applause, punctuated by a quick bada-boom on the snare drum. “Congratulations, old friend, and salud!”
Following the announcement, well-wishers and family friends surrounded our family of three. I fielded the usual questions about my studies and summer plans until Juan rescued me.
“There you are. I’ve been looking for you. You look gorgeous. Someone wants to meet you.” He led me toward a caramel-haired, middle-aged woman raising her hand at us.
“Hi, I’m Paloma,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Graciela,” the smiling woman began to introduce herself, but stopped short as I approached. She looked at me quizzically through tortoiseshell glasses. “Graciela de Graaf, but everyone calls me Grace,” she resumed. “Such a pleasure. When Juan told me he was dating Santiago Larrea’s daughter, I just had to see you with my own eyes. I knew your father in Buenos Aires, but we lost touch years ago when I moved to Holland.”
“Have you seen him yet?”
“Not yet, just from afar. He’s been very busy tending to his many guests,” Grace said with a laugh. “Like the Santiago I remember, always surrounded by a million friends.” She took a caipirinha from a passing waiter. “These are lethal but delicious.”
“Let me bring you to him,” I offered. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”
Taking Grace by the arm, I called out to my parents across the lawn. Dad squinted as we approached but then returned to his conversation with an elderly couple.
“Your parents are just as good-looking as they were twenty-five years ago,” Grace remarked.
“You knew my mother too?”
“Oh, yes. Everyone knew Santiago and Lila,” Grace said. “I was happy to learn they had a child.”
“Really? You sound as if you were surprised.”
“I don’t know…I guess we didn’t talk about having kids back then,” she said wistfully. “We were kids ourselves.”
“Papá. Mamá. Look who I just met!”
My parents greeted Grace with blank expressions.
“Santiago. It’s been a long time.” Grace went to kiss him hello, but something in his eyes made her stop.
“Grace Díaz,” Dad pronounced slowly.
“It’s de Graaf now. I’ve been married, divorced, and recently remarried. How’s that for a good Catholic girl? Terrible, I know!” She laughed. “But I keep reminding myself that I made a much better decision the second time around. Anyway, you must meet Erik. He’s here somewhere.” She gestured vaguely out toward the party.
“We’d love to meet him,” Dad said. He turned to my mother. “Can you believe it, Lila, after all these years? It’s Grace.”
“Incredible,” Mom said. “How have you been?”
“This is an unexpected surprise,” Dad added. “What brings you here to the Hamptons?”
“We’re staying with the de Konings. My husband and Dirk are childhood friends.” By my father’s expression, I could tell he didn’t register the name.
“You all knew each other in Buenos Aires?” I chimed in.
“Uh, yes, that’s right. Grace and I studied law together at the Universidad de Buenos Aires,” he said, becoming animated as he mentioned his alma mater. “My God, that building was falling apart inside even then. And the hours we spent at the library! It turned out to be a monumental waste of time, at least for me. But we had fun, didn’t we?”
“Yes, we did,” Grace said with a laugh.
“My goodness, it sure is good to see you again,” he said, kissing her lightly on the cheek.
“I think an encounter like this deserves a toast,” Mom said. She lifted her empty champagne flute and signaled to a waiter. As the waiter refreshed our glasses, Grace’s husband Erik ambled over.
After Dad shared a couple of stories from their law school days that had everyone laughing, Grace turned to me and said, “Your father hasn’t aged at all.”
“Like many men my age, my hair is getting thinner and my waist is growing thicker,” Dad said with his typical self-deprecating charm.
“You mean to say that you have a thin waist and thick hair!” Grace laughed, calling him out on his false modesty. She spoke to him in a familiar tone, and it delighted me to see the affection between him and an old friend.
He was remarkably fit and slender in middle age. His dark brown hair, brushed back with a hint of gel, had only recently started showing silver near his temples, enhancing his distinguished looks.
“He was the most handsome man in our class,” Grace said to the group. My father raised his hand in protest. “No, no, Santiago, don’t try to say otherwise. You were quite a catch.”
As his daughter, I hadn’t really been aware of my father’s charisma until one night at my high school’s winter festival when I overheard a couple of senior girls in my class agreeing that if they were going to have an affair with an older man, they’d go for someone like Mr. Larrea. Then they giggled at some of the other dads with bulging bellies, weak chins, and receding hairlines.
Grace continued. “The problem is you knew it. But I think our friend Máximo came in a close second. Wouldn’t you agree, Lila?”
“Aren’t most twentysomething-year-old men good-looking? You know, when you’re that young?” Mom suggested casually, but her tone was slightly pitched. Dad and I knew well enough that this only happened when she was nervous. Mom gripped her champagne glass while smiling politely at their unexpected visitors.
“I see that life has been kind to you,” Grace said to my father.
“It’s true. I’ve been blessed.” Dad put a protective arm around Mom.
“Not so for some others we knew.”
“Those were complicated times, Grace. Anyway, now’s not the time for boring old stories.”
“Boring?” Grace turned to me. “Paloma, I wonder how much you know about Argentina during those years.”
I glanced at my parents. Talk of Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s had been taboo in our family for as long as I could remember.
“Sadly, not much,” I told Grace.
“Well, I think you should be aware that thanks to your father, many people were spared—”
“I said not now, Grace.” My father’s sharp tone startled her into silence. He opened his mouth to say something else but then closed it again.
Grace looked at him with a pained expression before turning on her heel and walking off.
“I didn’t mean to upset her,” Dad mumbled without quite looking at anyone. “She has a good memory, but that really was a long time ago.” He turned to Erik. “I’m sorry if I was abrupt.”
“Not at all. I should be the one to apologize for her,” Erik said. “Sometimes she likes to talk about the old days in Argentina, especially if she’s had a drink or two. She’s been an expat for years now, so I think she was excited to see an old friend from university. I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course. No need to apologize, please.”
As soon as Erik left, Mom turned to Dad.
“She still has eyes for you, that’s clear enough,” my mother said. She was long accustomed, if not resigned, to the effect her husband had on women.
I hadn’t given much thought to my father’s life as a bachelor, but Grace’s remarks made me wonder: What had he been like as a young man?
“Grace is stuck in the past,” Dad said. “It happened to some people…they haven’t been able to move on. I did. That’s all.”
“But she said people’s lives were spared because of you,” I said. “What did she mean by that?”
It was not often that I was on the receiving end of one of my father’s withering looks—a look he’d bestow on a housekeeper when a shirt had not been pressed properly or when the coffee was not prepared to his liking. But when he spoke next, his tone was gentle.
“Ancient history, sweetheart,” he said.
My parents then turned with wide smiles to a group of approaching guests, signaling the end of the discussion. I wandered around the edge of the lawn to the front side of the house, where cars lined the driveway. I glimpsed Grace and Erik in the back seat of a sedan. The rear window rolled down.
“Paloma.” Grace smiled at me. “I really enjoyed meeting you.”
“Me too. I’m sorry about my father. I hardly ever see him like that. I don’t know what came over him.”
Grace took a moment before answering. “When you get to be my age, you tend to focus on chance encounters that, at the time, seemed like nothing of consequence but later turned out to be defining moments.”
“I don’t follow.”
Erik murmured into Grace’s ear.
“My husband’s right. I’m not making much sense right now. Time to go.” Grace reached her arm through the window to press my hand. “Have you heard of the Argentine writer Martín Torres?”
“You should look for his books. He’s a fantastic writer. Take good care.”
Before I could react, the car pulled away.
* * *
I tossed my sandals in the general direction of my closet and tugged and cursed at the fabric of my dress caught in the zipper. It finally gave way, and I pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt. Coco, our cat, slunk into the bedroom and brushed my leg, announcing his presence. I scooped him up, his warm body like a balm on my skin.
“You’re still my one and only, even if you abandoned me for Mamá.”
I sat at my desk, opened my laptop, and connected the line to the phone jack, waiting impatiently for the dial-up modem to proceed through its sounds. Once logged in, I typed “Graciela de Graaf” and “Graciela Díaz” into a search engine and found zero relevant results. I changed it to “Grace” and alternated in both last names. Still no luck. Faint sounds of music, laughter, and clinking glasses floated through the open window. Then I looked up Martín Torres and dozens of entries appeared. A brief biography about the acclaimed Argentine author explained that he had lived exiled in Spain during the South American country’s dictatorship but had returned to his homeland a few years after democracy was restored in 1983. I added “Santiago Larrea” to “Martín Torres” as an additional search term, and I came across his Jorge Luis Borges Award acceptance speech from 1988.
…Among the people I want to thank this evening, I am particularly grateful to Santiago Larrea. Without him, I wouldn’t be here standing in front of you. He was one of the few who, in his own way, took action…
Why had Dad never talked about Martín Torres, and what did he do that was important enough for Torres to mention him in a speech? Also, what did Grace mean when she said my dad had “spared people’s lives”? Coco rubbed my leg. I stroked the fur between his shoulder blades and looked out the window. There was no longer any music. The party had ended.
Libertador Avenue, on any typical weekday morning, was a stream of buses and cars. Today, however, traffic was at a standstill across all five lanes in each direction. An accident? A broken traffic light? Santiago Larrea couldn’t see what was going on and regretted not having walked to class. He shifted his Volkswagen Beetle down to first gear and looked mindlessly out the window at the upscale apartment towers along the boulevard to his right. His family’s apartment was just beyond these high-rises, in Recoleta, the neighborhood that gave Buenos Aires its fame as the “Paris of South America.” Jacaranda trees, which would burst into clusters of purple blooms in October, lined the small green parks that bordered the avenue and dotted the neighborhood.
- "With suspense and heartbreak, Andrea Yaryura Clark’s debut novel explores the human toll of Argentina’s Dirty War, whose atrocities can still upend the most cloistered and prosperous lives. On a Night of a Thousand Stars turns one woman’s genealogical quest into a searing indictment of the complicity inherent in cultural silence."—Jennifer Egan, New York Times bestselling author of Manhattan Beach
- "This novel sheds light on a dark chapter in Argentina's history, the effects of the country's worst dictatorship, and the consequences for those left behind and those who survived."—Greer Hendricks, New York Times bestselling co-author of The Wife Between Us
- "A powerful debut about a chapter in history that must be told."—Janice Y.K. Lee, New York Times bestselling author of The Expatriates and The Piano Teacher
- "In luminescent prose and exquisite detail, Andrea Yaryura Clark chronicles a family's history through the political turmoil of Argentina's Dirty War and beyond. Both heart-rending and hopeful, On a Night of a Thousand Stars explores the strength and endurance of love and familial bonds in the face of chaos and tragedy. A deeply moving, timely and important debut."—Cristina Alger, New York Times bestselling author of Girls Like Us
- "Andrea Yaryura Clark’s deep understanding of the complexity and savagery of Argentine history brings an authority to this gripping novel, a chilling reminder of the precariousness of human rights and the extraordinary bravery of those fighting to preserve freedom for all."—Lisa Gornick, Author of The Peacock Feast
- "In Andrea Clark’s debut novel, she has accomplished the remarkable feat of rendering the political and the human story, telling a painful narrative of lives lost, Argentinian history, and the family. Brava and welcome.”—Roxana Robinson, Author of Dawson's Fall
- "A skillful debut which serves as a reminder that a country's past can never be left in the past."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Vividly rendered . . . Both heartbreaking and race-to-the-end suspenseful."—Library Journal
- "A compelling story of a time and place that might not be well known to American readers, as well as a heartbreaking narrative of generational trauma."—Booklist
- "History is reclaimed in this magnetic debut, with Clark determined to excavate the past on behalf of its sufferers."—Toronto Star
- "You know you’re getting some good historical fiction with a title like that."—Betches
- "A rollercoaster of emotion that draws in readers with its characters and depiction of this period in history."—Scale it Simple
- On Sale
- Mar 1, 2022
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing