Eighteen years ago, Sandra Cisneros published a novel of little scenes called "The House on Mango Street." It's become a classic for readers of all ages, giving voice to the Hispanic American experience the way "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" does for African Americans. In a business that pushes authors to press out a book every 18 months ready or not the pressure on Cisneros to capitalize on her popularity must have been intense.
But she wasn't going to be rushed. Yes, there's been some fine poetry and even a collection of short stories in 1991, but that only made us more impatient for the next novel. Indeed, there was anxious talk that she might be another One Great Book Author like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger (or, some might say, Maya Angelou).
Fortunately, she was just waiting to get it right. "Caramelo" is a novel worthy of the tremendous anticipation that's built up over those 18 years. It's a swirling dinner-table collection of family tales, sloshing full of tears and laughter.
The deceptive simplicity of "The House on Mango Street" allowed it to take hold even on middle school reading lists across the country, but the length and sophisticated structure of "Caramelo" may limit its accessibility. Indeed, Cisneros seems constrained by nothing in this lavish story about four generations of Mexican-Americans. She moves across literary borders as easily as these characters trek back and forth from Mexico City to Chicago. ("Caramelo" is also available in a Spanish-language edition.)
Little Lala Reyes tells the first part of the novel, a cramped sweaty car trip to visit the Awful Grandmother in Mexico. It's a fantastic description, full of a child's frustrations and delights, recalled through her fragmented understanding and memory of the tension between her parents.
Cisneros uses a style that captures the knotted voices, events, and impressions of a large family gathering. Lala's attention runs from the horror of losing her braids to the thrill of seeing Mexico City rise on the horizon: "The center of the universe! The valley like a big bowl of hot beef soup before you taste it." At the end of their trip stands the Awful Grandmother, tossing a shawl across her chest, "the big black X at the map's end."
A summer under this woman's strict attention is almost more than Lala can bear, and it's certainly more than her passionate mother can endure. The house strains under the weight of so much familia, so much fiesta, and so much criticism for each other's culture, old and new.
The furnace in this crowded dwelling and the engine that powers the entire novel is the Awful Grandmother's burning love for her oldest son, Lala's father. It's a love that leaves no room for anyone else. Every belabored tortilla is a rebuke to her daughter-in-law's fast food up North. She sees in her grandchildren only the horrible effects of their American upbringing and their mother's laxity. She's an Oedipal nightmare who clutches at her son and worships him to the exclusion of all else. At the climax of this tumultuous summer, she purposely throws her son's marriage into crisis and then pleads with him, "Let her be. You're better off without her kind. Wives come and go, but mothers, you have only one."
But just as she's about to solidify into some ghastly in-law cliché, Cisneros jumps back and begins to tell the story of the Awful Grandmother as a young woman. The daughter of a shawlmaker, she found herself abandoned early and subjected to hard labor. The story spreads out across the whole fabric of Lala's family history with tales of foolishness and passion, tragedy and sacrifice, all told with Cisneros's witty, poetic voice. She also provides a rich assortment of historical footnotes, songs, film commentary, and cameo appearances by famous people colorful threads that tie this apparently inconsequential life into the fabric of Mexico and America. (The title refers to the great-grandmother's multicolored rebozo, or shawl, a symbol Cisneros weaves throughout the novel.)
But what's most delightful and daring is the banter between the adult narrator and the voice of her old grandmother, arguing about these tales. "How you exaggerate!" her grandmother interrupts at one point. "Why do you constantly have to impose your filthy politics? Can't you just tell the facts?"
At times, she even takes over the narrative herself, playing as fast and loose with the threads of history and fiction as her granddaughter does. An illness caused by fright is woven into a brave wound during the Mexican civil war. Chronology is trimmed to bring a beloved baby into legitimacy. Eventually, the difference between truth and fantasy is neatly tied off. "I know it sounds as if I am making it up," she says, "but the facts are so unbelievable they can only be true."
Lala wrests back control of the story, but her grandmother can't help popping in with little suggestions: "Don't you think we need a love scene here?" It's a charming, impossible conversation that points toward Lala's eventual appreciation for the Awful Grandmother and particularly for the healing function of family legends.
As the narrative moves back and forth in time, paragons of virtue are knocked off their pedestals, but Cisneros places them on sturdier ground. This is, after all, a novel about the conciliatory power of stories not an exposé of a family's sins. During one disagreement about what to include or exclude, the grandmother objects, "Your story? I thought you were telling my story?"
"Your story is my story," Lala responds. Readers across every border will say the same thing about this beautiful novel.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.