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Women With Big Eyes (thoughts)

November 9, 2010

I read Women With Big Eyes by Angeles Mastretta back in August, and I loved it to pieces! Here’s the opening passage:

Aunt Leonor had the world’s most perfect belly button: a small dot hidden exactly in the middle of her flat, flat belly. She had a freckled back and round, firm hips, like the pitchers of water she drank from as a child. Her shoulders were raised slightly; she walked slowly, as if on a high wire. Those who saw them tell that her legs were long and golden, that her pubic hair was a tuft of arrogant, reddish down, that it was impossible to look upon her waist without desiring all of her.

Isn’t Mastretta’s writing enchanting? She has the gift of making characters rise up from the page, so that they’re living and breathing and sashaying their hips in front of you. Combined with such lyrical prose (this is actually a translation; Mastretta wrote in Spanish, and my edition at least was bilingual), I was in heaven from the first page to the last.

Women with Big Eyes is not a novel, but I hesitate to call it a short story collection. Because these are not traditional, and I think they would appeal even to those not a fan of ‘short stories.’ Instead, each chapter is a miniature portrait of one aunt, and taken together they form an exquisite curio cabinet for the reader to explore. To change metaphors, reading this book was like being at a huge family reunion, with all of the women crowded into a room sharing stories and laughing and crying and rejoicing in their womanhood, despite living in a culture drenched with machismo. While each story is different, there’s an undercurrent of strength and making the best with what you’ve been given that I really loved.

All of the women live in Puebla, Mexico, and their stories feel both traditional and timeless; I’d be hard-pressed to decide on a time period. But Puebla becomes the fortieth character, really, and I loved getting to know the rhythms of the town. Mastretta’s skill with bringing people to life extends to places as well, which made the book even more of a treat. The stories themselves, often of love, are the oldest ones told; they seem to follow expected cycles of betrayal, or hardship, or joy. But, to me at least, there’s a reason why the oldest stories have stuck with us: they speak to the kind of cycles we all experience in our lives. Rather like myths and legends, they grow stronger in each retelling, and I don’t think the familiar sense I had while reading Women with Big Eyes is a bad thing. The appeal of the book is in how each of the aunts, while they do come across as individuals, are also all facets of the larger ‘woman’ archetype. Mastretta has tapped into a deep sense of identity, personalised it with her Mexican heritage, and created a book that I think every reader can see herself in. (One caveat: I cannot remember if any of the aunts fall in love with other women, and since I don’t own the book I can’t check. But it is heavy on the heterosexuality.)

I cannot wait to try out some more of Mastretta’s books; in fact, I have already put in a request for one of her novels (Lovesick) from my library. I can see her becoming one of my comfort authors: the ones I turn to when I want vivid characters, a good story, and a feeling that life is beautiful, even when it’s sad.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2010 9:48 am

    Wonderful post, Eva! I love the title of Mastretta’s book – ‘Women with Big Eyes’ – so beautiful and evocative! That first passage that you have quoted is really interesting – it grabs the attention of the reader! I can’t wait to read your review of Mastretta’s next book :)

    • November 10, 2010 5:17 pm

      Isn’t it a great title? I just got Lovesick home from the library too, so with any luck I should be able to talk about it within the next few weeks! :)

  2. November 9, 2010 9:53 am

    This sounds wonderful! I’ve not heard of this author, but I loved that excerpt you posted and the entire premise of this book sounds really fascinating. I love books that take us to places we might otherwise never know of, and I definitely am intrigued by the fact that you felt the city of Puebla was its own force in the novel.

    • November 10, 2010 5:17 pm

      I love books that take me to new places too! Especially ones that are my neighbours. :D

  3. November 9, 2010 10:26 am

    This sounds magical! I’ve started to enjoy short stories more and a collection like this is really appealing.

  4. November 9, 2010 12:07 pm

    This isn’t a book I’d typically think to pick up on my own, but you made it sound so fabulous I might just try it out! :)

    • November 10, 2010 5:17 pm

      You’ll have to let me know what you think of it! I think you’ll enjoy the strong women focus. :)

  5. November 9, 2010 1:19 pm

    With 39 women featured, you’d think at least one of them would be queer! ;) I’m really glad that the translation works beautifully; I always wonder about how much work it takes for translators to translate style and quirks.

    • November 10, 2010 5:20 pm

      You know, one of them might have been queer, I honestly can’t remember. Which doesn’t say much for my ally status, does it? *blushes*

      The translator has a little introduction that I really enjoyed reading, and I loved being able to flip to the Spanish side to do a bit of comparison! I’ve never studied Spanish, but between my French and Latin I can get the gist of reading it. :)

  6. November 9, 2010 3:24 pm

    Wow! That is a good opening passage; and in translation too! I love stories that are “the oldest ones told.” There is a reason that we resonate with them. Sounds like another title to put on my list :)

    • November 10, 2010 5:20 pm

      I’m glad I convinced you to put it on your TBR list! :)

  7. November 10, 2010 4:45 am

    This looks like such an interesting read. I love how you compare it to a family reunion. I’m not a fan of short stories (but my goal next year is to try them a wee bit more). The writing here is beautiful.

    • November 10, 2010 5:21 pm

      Perhaps this would be a good one to start out with? But then, I’ve been a short story fan for as long as I can remember, so I’m not very good at predicting which ones might go over well with non-short story readers!

  8. bethfishreads permalink
    November 10, 2010 5:05 am

    I love the description of the stories as “being at a huge family reunion” and the opening passage is a bit difficult to walk away from. This is a new to me author and now I’ll have to go hunting.

    • November 10, 2010 5:22 pm

      I was surprised I hadn’t heard of her before: it looks like she mainly published in the 90s though, so I guess that explains it!

  9. November 10, 2010 7:49 am

    Sounds like a really good and interesting book Eva. Another addition to my wish list!

    • November 10, 2010 5:22 pm

      Oh those wishlists! Getting longer by the blog post. ;)


  1. Mexico: Women with Big Eyes (Book-from-every-country #34) | Biblioglobal

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