Each month, American Express Essentials highlights one definitive literary work, old or new, and across any and all genres. The only determinant is quality: a book that makes life more vivid, more inspiring – a gifted piece of work you want to share. An absolute must-read. 

Up this month is a delightfully addictive historical novel by Spanish writer Maria Dueñas. Appreciated by critics and beloved by readers across the book’s forty language versions and seventy editions, The Time in Between stands as one of the most successful Spanish-language literary works of our time.

The Time in Between follows the classic literary tradition of a novel that encompasses love, war, espionage – and everything, well, in between. If we start there, it’s very easy to understand why Maria Dueña’s novel has found its way into the homes of so many readers around the world. Its success is nearly self-explanatory.

Yet, even while the story seemingly ticks all the big boxes, there’s something else about this book that makes it special: Dueñas does a marvellous job at weaving her protagonist’s fictional story with real-world historical events. From page one, she sets her stage.

“I had been born in the summer of 1911, the same year that the dancer Pastora Imperio married El Gallo, when the Mexican singer Jorge Negrete came into the world. When the star of that age they called the Belle Époque was fading. In the distance the drums of what would be the first great war were beginning to be heard, while in Madrid cafés people read El Debate and El Heraldo, and on the stage La Chelito fired men’s passions as she moved her hips brazenly to the tempo of popular songs. During those summer months King Alfonso XIII managed to arrange that, between one lover and the next, his fifth legitimate child, a daughter, was conceived. Meanwhile, at the helm of the government was Canalejas the liberal, who couldn’t predict that just a year later an eccentric anarchist would put an end to his life, firing three bullets to his head while he was browsing in the San Martín bookshop.” 

And just like that, your room is no longer your room. You’re standing in the centre of Plaza de Cibeles while you dip your Porras into thick Spanish hot chocolate. And leaving Spain is not an option – except that’s exactly what the reader is forced to do when they embark on Sira Quiroga’s journey. The novel offers a vivid portrayal of the political and social upheaval of the time, and Dueña’s historical accuracy and attention to detail bring the story to life. Readers will feel as though they are experiencing every single event, big or small, alongside Sira.

A young dressmaker (and the novel’s main character) who is swept up in a world of espionage as she becomes embroiled in the Spanish Civil War, Sira is a picture of the strong female protagonist. And while she definitely does not lack might, we’d prefer to describe her as strongly built, or even strongly written. We’d even go as far as to say she’s one of the most compelling female characters in modern commercial literature. Faced with hardship, Sira is adaptable enough to discover new aspects of her character, some of which she never imagined possible. She makes her way through life with audacity and grit as she weathers conflict, loss and love, but she’s also an unlikely heroine who, we discover, is sensible and cunning. A well-rounded character that readers looking for female-centred stories will appreciate.

For those more interested in the historical and sociopolitical aspects of The Time in Between’s world-building prowess, it must be noted that one of the main aspects of the narrative deals with the political and social unrest of the time, as well as the cultural differences between early 20th-century Spain and 1930s Morocco. Early in the book, Sira states: “Then we launched ourselves into a new decade and there were more changes. All of them together, unforeseen, almost one on top of another.” Political tensions permeate the entirety of the novel. Historical fiction buffs will not be disappointed. 

Fashion enthusiasts will also find several points of interest within Dueña’s novel, with countless passages dedicated to long days of sewing, mending and stitching. What’s more, through Sira’s eyes, we watch fashions change and evolve through the years. Hemlines get longer and necklines become more modest as the roaring twenties give way to pre-war Spain. Sira goes from apprentice to dressmaker to comfortable expat to seamstress and single mother as her life takes her from Madrid to Tangiers. Customs are different, and that includes fashion and style.

Now, if readers are looking for a love story, they can rest assured they’ll find it in The Time in Between. Generally classified as a romance novel, love is, naturally, one of the main themes readers are seeking out here in the first place. We meet Sira as she is engaged to be married to a man with a comfortable yet unassuming disposition, poised to continue living according to her mother’s teachings and values. She then, however, goes on to meet a charming but potentially treacherous man. Sira abandons her fiancé (and with him, the only life she’s ever known), embarking with her new love interest on an adventure filled with passionate lovemaking and nights on the town – all the things that would (and indeed do) make her mother boil with fury. Whether that’s a good choice, well, that’s up to each reader to decide. 

Whatever one’s opinion, that’s where the story truly begins. It is love (or is it infatuation?) that sets this tale in motion. It’s also what transforms Sira from ingénue to woman. What’s more important, when it goes sour – and oh, what a way for things to go downhill because of a man – it’s what sets the scene for her to become a heroine. We won’t say much more regarding the subject, as we wouldn’t want to spoil the book for you. 

Whether you love fashion, history or a steamy romance, The Time in Between is a novel worth picking up – if not for its wide appeal, then for its beautiful writing and deft characterisation. Sira’s first-person narration never bores, never drags, never goes stale. It’s an intriguing story that will surprise readers with its tenderness and excitement, full of characters so well-drawn and woven into the plot, they never fail to seem alive.

Explore Further: What To Read & Watch

If you fall in love with The Time in Between, the most logical next step would be to stream the eponymous Spanish TV series. If it’s the love story that gets to your heart, reach for Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night, set in mid-20th-century Algeria. If historic war-time fiction is more your thing, don’t hesitate to crack open Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

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