Thursday, October 8, 2009


B as in Beauty
Alberto Ferreras

Literary Fiction? Chicklit?

Hungry Woman in Paris
Josefina Lopez

Literary Fiction? Autobiographical Women's Fiction?

1. Big beautiful career woman with self-esteem issues learns to capitalize on her unusual look.
2. Grieving, romantically-conflicted and family-challenged first generation American woman
seeks answers in French haute cooking school.

1. Very beautiful, with eye-catching colors and relevant title. Would have snared Apprentice Writer's attention if walking by in a store.
2. Gorgeous colors. Unusual, striking, and symbolic image which perfectly captures a key moment in the story. Fantastic title which reflects content exactly. One of the best covers AW has seen this year.

What Works
1. B, short for Beauty, is an appealing young heroine. Of Cuban-American descent, she is in an ongoing struggle on three levels: to navigate her way between her family's traditional expections while in the 'new country', to get ahead in her job in advertising, and to make peace with the fact that despite her best efforts, her body does not conform to current notions of feminine body ideal. Following a few chapters establishing the baseline of her life, she meets an enigmatic older woman who offers her the opportunity to see her body in a new way; through the eyes of men whose thoughts and needs regarding love are highly specific and out of the norm. Offering her services to these men sets B on a gradual transformation process. Watching her growing self-esteem touch off changes in her personal and professional life was enjoyable, with the reader rooting for her along the way.

2. Who (apart from Parisians) hasn't entertained a fantasy or two about leaving all one's troubles behind to run away to Paris and recreate one's life? And who (apart from - OK give AW a minute here, she's having trouble coming up with an exception) doesn't equate Paris with exquisite food and passion for eating? This reader was more than ready to vicariously live out her dream through the heroine's actions, and eagerly explored the legendary Gallic capital through Canela's eyes.
As a visible minority member in France, Canela lives through the immigrant experience all over again after doing so the first time following an immensely difficult transition to the United States from Mexico. Her descriptions and flashbacks to key childhood scenes are vivid, and show what she means by hunger, of the body and the soul. This is the author's first novel, and there are sudden, small moments peppered throughout the novel that seem gem-like in beauty and clarity. One such is the scene where Canela recalls the exhausting work of picking grapes with her entire family, holding a cluster of fruit in her hands as though it were a heart, and having this memory abruptly tainted by arrival of authorities to conduct a raid on illegal workers. All panic and flee, so that fear of discovery, physical hunger while waiting till it's safe to emerge from the hiding spot, blood from an injury, and sweet grape juice all mingle together in the child Canela's mind. A shining moment in the narrative, and one that shows the author's screenwriterly and poetess roots.

What Doesn't
1. For some reason (the trade paperback size? the artistic cover? the reading group guide?) AW began this story under the impression it was literary fiction but as pages turned, it felt more like Latina chicklit. To wit: first person (check), young, urban, single, female protagonist (check), label-conscious (check), works in publishing/marketing/some such field (check), relies more on friends than family (check), has evil ex-boyfriend or evil boss or both (check). All that was missing was the gay best friend.

Gentle Reader, don't misconstrue. AW does not dislike chicklit. To the contrary, she has been diligent in her efforts (recorded in this space) to track down the increasingly endangered beast in its natural habitat. It's simply that she could do without the more strident tropes of the genre. Simply inserting a Latina heroine where, say, a standard-issue British one would usually be, does not alter the fact that a genre stereotype remains a genre stereotype. Specifically, the evil, ultra-onedimensional boss seemed overdone.

At multiple points throughout the story, B feels the need to repeat to her employer that she does not agree to have sex with the clients, and the employer assures her that she need not do anything with which she is not comfortable. Given the facts that the meetings with clients take place at night, that B is paid handsomely (by the employer after being given cash by the clients), that she is expected to devote large amounts of time and money on appearance, and that she is taken to and from appointments by a male driver who assures her that he can extract her from situations just as soon as she signals she is uncomfortable, it is understandable that B finds the lines blurry at times. Little tip: if you are in a frequent state of anxiety due to constant checking where the line is drawn, YOU MIGHT WANT TO STEP BACK AND RE-THINK THE WHOLE SITUATION.

2. There was much to enjoy in this story. There was also much to stub one's reader toe on. First, the character of Canela herself. The story opens with her behaving badly during a funeral. Grief can take mourners in different ways so it was not difficult to overlook this opening , however Canela continues at times to act in ways that seem oddly young and/or ego-centric for the stage of life she has reached. This is not the same as acting selfish; a recurring theme is her despair that she felt unable to help her beloved cousin in a difficult life situation, and when presented with an opportunity to make a difference for another woman in dire straits, she jumps in with both feet. It was more a matter of not grasping her hypocritical actions (e.g. she remarks more than once that she hasn't heard from a friend who had to leave France abruptly, yet she herself took off for France without telling anyone where she was going and takes a very long time to communicate with family members to let them know she is alright, avoids talking to parents directly so as to avoid lectures, etc.) and also, disappointingly, the schoolgirl level at which the cooking experience seems to remain.

Being a fan of HGTV, and having recently read 'Julie & Julia' (in which an amateur chef chronicles attempts to cook all recipes in a classic French cuisine cookbook in a year), AW has this preconceived notion that people who go into the profession are filled with passion and creativity where food is concerned. And though there were a few times where this came through it mostly was when gastronomic and romantic (or perhaps more accurately, lustful) passion intersected. Canela doesn't enrol in cooking school because she loves food an admires French cuisine; she does so to obtain a legal document that will allow her to stay longer in France because she doesn't feel ready to go home yet. Consequently, it should perhaps have been no surprise that the school scenes describe worry about tests, jostling with fellow students, time running out - all things that could take place at any kind of school. AW missed the zing that goes along with people for whom food is art, who train themselves to heighten their senses in service to providing new taste experiences for their clients and families. In this context, she was taken aback at the sheer number of men who appeared to seek employment at the school for the purpose of gaining access to a never-ending stream of foreign student bedpartners (since emphasis is made on the fact the French cooking students don't enrol). Perhaps she should be more cynical?

She also missed smooth writing. The author's style felt choppy and confusing, with details and characters mentioned that at first were assumed to be designed to further the plot but then led nowhere. Like Canela, the author spent time in France at cooking school. It made this reader wonder if the writing style could partly be explained as autobiographical memory, with scenes given straightforward description of what took place at the time, rather than deliberate fictional build-up of one detail logically upon another so as to achieve a particular effect in the reader. Yet - the parts that worked, worked very well. Often in short snippets, such as clever chapter titles: 'Like Water for Canela', 'Last Mango in Paris', 'A Chicana in Paris'.

Apprentice Writer has read very little Latin-oriented fiction. She won these titles as part of a Hispanic Literature Appreciation Month prize, and eagerly dove in. Though she didn't click on every level with these particular stories, without question, the background of the heroines added depth and interest to tales of universal struggle of young women trying to find their place in the modern world. AW greatly looks forward to reading further titles exploring the Latin diaspora.

Learn more about the authors here:
Alberto Ferreras

Josefina Lopez

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