What is it that induces even families of below-average means to spend thousands of dollars on dress-up parties for 15-year-olds? And why on earth do these 15-year-olds spend years dreaming of a day on which they'll be permitted to don dresses that look most nearly like wedding cakes and then appear in public tearfully clutching their last dolls?
It's all part of the mystery of the quinceañera, the oddly re-created tradition of the 15th birthday party of a young Latina woman, examined in uncomfortable detail in Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA by novelist Julia Alvarez.
I say "uncomfortable" because Alvarez herself is so conflicted about the quinceañera, or at least the form of it that she's exploring: a ceremony so inexactly imported from Latin America to the United States that its traditions are being made up as fast as wily marketers and eager family and friends can create them.
The quinceañera is a rite of pasage similar to the debutante ball. Once upon a time, it was the way a family told the world that their little girl was all grown up and ready to begin accepting appropriate suitors.
But in its current incarnation in the US, Alvarez reports, the quinceañera has become a hodge podge, an odd mix of US commercialism (there are now quinceañera cruises, quinceañera resort packages, quinceañera videos, and of course a Quinceañera Barbie), pan-Hispanic customs of uncertain origin, and age-old adolescent longing.
There are so many reasons to dislike the quinceañera, Alvarez points out. "The incredible expense; a girl being encouraged in the dubious fantasy of being a princess as if the news of feminism had never reached her mami; the marketing of a young lady as attractive marriageable goods." And of course, in this day and age, the obvious and glaring objection: "Why not save the money for education?"
And yet, she confesses, still, "every time the young lady makes an entrance ... my eyes tear up and my throat catches."
It's an ambivalence Alvarez is never able to resolve and perhaps that's one reason her book remains an uneven read.
"Once Upon a Quinceañera" seems an attempt to fold several books into one. Some chapters focus on the ceremony itself, including interviews with "quince" specialists. Alvarez also describes three different US quinceañeras she attends, offering a sense of the diversity of the ceremonies and their participants (although for a book that aims to dig deep, her contacts with these young women and their families are surprisingly superficial).
Other chapters tell Alvarez's own coming-of-age story and here the narrative packs more punch. Alvarez did not have a quinceañera but she did struggle mightily as a young Hispanic from an immigrant family to shape a life and identity in the US.
But then in other places the book feels vaguely like a sociology text, spewing out statistics about the dangers faced by young Hispanic women in the US today. Alvarez's intent seems to be to endow the quinceañera with larger meaning, to help us see it as a symbol of the uneasy passage of Hispanic teens – and by extension, all teens – into adulthood. But that ambitious goal gets lost somewhere in the layers of the multitiered pink tulle gowns.
That's not to say there's nothing to enjoy in this book. Alvarez wrings all she can out of her topic and even readers knowledgeable about the quinceañera will find tidbits that surprise them. (Who knew that its origins were perhaps Aztec?) Also, fans of Alvarez's novels ("How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents," "In the Time of the Butterflies") will enjoy her sensitive account of her own troubled coming-of-age.
The book's conclusion ("Did I believe in the Q-tradition or not? Yes and no. Sí y no") simply falls short. Perhaps it's as a guest at a virtual quinceañera (and yes, there are such things) laments in a chat room: "there should of bine more light."
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to email@example.com..