Ana Castillo's voice is one of self-confident, hypnotic melancholy. Peel My Love Like an Onion
, her fifth book, often reads like a diary rather than a novel--full of dashed-off midnight eloquence but unformed. It's the story of Carmen Santos, a flamenco dancer whose right leg is shriveled from polio. Her family moved from Mexico to Chicago before she was born: "My first language was Spanish but I am not really Mexican. I guess I am Chicago-Mexican." Castillo sees the immigrant experience as a minefield of ironies. Carmen works at the Domino's in the airport as a way of being a productive American, thus gaining her father's respect. One morning on a "power walk" she realizes that the shoes she is wearing may have been made in a sweatshop by some distant relative from "somewhere... very foreign, like seaweed-and-black-fungus-in-French-Vietnamese-soup foreign."
As the book moves back and forth between Carmen's dreams of economic and emotional freedom and her erotic life (in which passion often feels as much like a trap as a release), Castillo's fluid style often lapses into carelessness. And there is a blurred quality to many of the images, like photographs taken from a moving car. Carmen's story is most engaging when she experiences isolated moments of independence: flamenco dancing, for instance, for the customers at a hair salon where she is working, dragging her bad leg around in front of the ladies under the hair dryers. The scene--a moment to relish--is almost heroic in its defiance of the exhausted world. --Emily White
From Publishers Weekly
Confirming her reputation as a talented writer, Castillo's (So Far from God) sardonic and seductive novel flowers at the exotic intersection of Chicago's flamenco, Gypsy and Chicano communities, where Carmen Santos, a defiant ex-flamenco dancer, struggles with the end of her career and the dissolution of a passionate love triangle. Left with a crippled leg after a childhood bout of polio, Carmen has always been defined by those around herAher parents, the school for the disabled she attended, her lovers and her public, who know her as "La Coja" (the cripple). It is only when she is dancing that she is sure of her identity, and as polio belatedly reasserts itself in her 40-year-old body, she feels she is losing the core of her existence. Then, like her legs, her two Gypsy loversAAgust!n, the married leader of her troupe, and Manolo, a fiery young dancer and Agust!n's godsonAabandon her. After 17 years as a dancer and a sensual being, Carmen is reduced to working in a sweatshop, at an airport pizza joint and as a corn-on-the-cob peddler. Most difficult of all, she is forced to move back into the family home, where her crotchety mother erodes her spirit. Dependent, stubborn, naive and heartbreakingly vulnerable, Carmen is a realistically flawed and lively survivor. In the person of her indomitable protagonist, Castillo's trademark feminist and border-crossing concerns acquire a new depth and complexity. Her writing has matured, and she keeps her own voice unobtrusive, stitching a seamless narrative. The pace here does not match the breakneck velocity of her previous works, nor does the novel strain for elaborate effects or call upon magic realism, yet its verve is unflinching. As careful an achievement as the patient peeling of an onion, this compulsively readable narrative should delight, and expand, Castillo's audience. Agent, Susan Bergholz. Author tour. (Sept.) FYI: Castillo's first and second novels, The Mixquiahuala Letters and Sapogonia, will be reissued in trade paperback by Anchor.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.