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Caramelo (thoughts)

July 5, 2011

I was sorting through my drafts folder the other day, and came across this post! I wrote it in February 2010; don’t ask me why I didn’t publish it then. I’m happy to share it now though, since it was one of my favourites of last year! -Eva

Sandra Cisneros’ novel Caramelo is a delicious read. I adored every single page of it, and while it looks a bit chunky (in hardcover, it tops 400 pages), it flew by for me. It was a perfect combination of interesting, believable characters, fascinating settings that jumped off the page, and an incredible writing style.

The characters are all part of one family, the Reyes, and the storyline moves fluidly between the generations, at some points looking at the Grandmother has a young girl in Mexico City, at other points looking at the experience of Lala (our narrator, the granddaughter) as a Mexican-American daughter growing up in Chicago and later San Antonio. Cisneros’ decision to have Lala narrate makes the characters seem immediately familiar. These people aren’t strangers; since I met them through Lala’s eyes, I see them intimately. That meant I could be immediately dumped into the story, and still feel that I had my bearings. Cisneros handles Lala’s voice perfectly as well; to make things more fun, occasionally the Grandmother breaks in when Lala is telling her story, usually with corrections or complaints. That kind of narrative dialogue is so neat, and it felt right to me, for this story. Anyway, all of the characters felt so true; they had huge flaws and huge strengths, with lives that were sometimes in their own control and sometimes in the hands of whimsical fate. It’s mainly a woman’s story, although the Grandmother is on Lala’s paternal side. I love these kind of sprawling, multigenerational sagas, especially when they have the kinds of characters I’ll never forget. And Lala feels like a friend at this point; I was sad to turn the final page and realise I wouldn’t be able to catch up with her again. There are lots of ‘bit’ parts too; even the characters that only exist for a few pages are sharply drawn. Since Lala has the instinct of a storyteller, many of these minor characters are exaggerated; it adds to the wonderful feeling of the novel.

If the characters were vividly drawn, the worlds they inhabited were just striking. Cisneros has that talent of evoking a sense of place so strongly that I find myself standing alongside the characters. One of my very favourite passages in the book occurs early, when a young Lala is driving with her family from Chicago to Mexico City, and has finally arrived back in Mexico.

As soon as we cross the bridge everything switches to another language. Toc says the light switch in this country, at home it says click. Honk, say the cars at home, here they say tan-tan-tan. The scrip-scrape-scrip of high heels across saltillo floor tiles. The angry lion growl of the corrugated curtains when the shopkeepers roll them open each morning and the lazy lion roar at night when they pull them shut. The of somebody’s far away hammer. Church bells over and over, all day, even when it’s not o’clock. Roosters. The hollow echo of a dog barking. Bells from skinny horses pulling tourists in a carriage, clip-clop on cobblestones and big chunks of horse caquita tumbling out of them like shredded wheat.

Sweets sweeter, colors brighter, the bitter more bitter. A cage of parrots all the rainbow colors of Lulu sodas. Pushing a window out to open it instead of pulling it up. A colds lash of door latch in your hand instead of the dull round doorknob. Tin sugar spoon and how surprised the hand feels because it’s so light. Children walking to school in the morning with their hair still wet from the morning bath.

I could go on; there’s another full page and a half of some of the most beautiful descriptive language I’ve ever read. But I’m not sure about copyright infringements, and I think you have a good taste. :) Cisneros is just as strong when evoking the other side of the border; Lala’s meditations on some of the awful apartments she had to live in growing up were so powerful. Throughout, I think it’s the descriptions that keep the reader grounded. No matter what’s going on with the characters and plot, I could depend on that sense of place. I feel like I’ve been granted a special gift, seeing Mexico through Cisneros’ eyes.

It’s funny; this book feels like such traditional, powerful storytelling. But while it’s rooted in tradition, Cisneros does all sorts of fun, rather experimental things with her prose. For example, there are often footnotes at the end of a chapter! The chapters are short, so it’s never a bother to find them, and they usually provide a historical or cultural background for some phrase or person. I love footnotes in general, and seeing them in fiction made me grin. I’ve already mentioned that the Grandmother interjects into Lala’s stories. There’s also the time jumps, which aren’t that frequent, but will definitely keep you on your toes. And then, while it’s not experimental really, Cisneros is marvelous at adding Spanish to the text without making it indecipherable. I love it when an author adds words from another language to their story, so that was an added bonus for me! :)

I hope that my gushing has convinced you to give this book a try. I’d read The House on Mango Street previously, and while they’re united by Cisneros’ excellent writing style, the books are really different. Caramelo feels like it was written for a more adult audience, and of course it’s much bigger, which gave Cisneros space to add layers and nuances that really add up. I think anyone who loves wonderful writing or unforgettable characters or family stories that span decades will love Caramelo. I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2011 2:02 pm

    I love stories about families, they are very dimensional because they usually have a great deal of characters that have very distinct personalities, and I love to see how they all get along.
    I think it’s really interesting the grandmother interjecting in the Lala’s speech it must make the story much more interesting and easy to relate.

  2. July 5, 2011 2:06 pm

    I almost forgot, sorry about all the spelling mistakes in the e-mail that I sent you, I forgot to proofread it.

    • July 11, 2011 3:24 am

      Hi Carolina! Don’t worry about any typos; I almost never remember to proofread! :)

  3. July 5, 2011 2:07 pm

    I love generational sagas, this sounds like an interesting book.

  4. July 5, 2011 2:18 pm

    I *just* finished this book too and loved it. Thanks for a great review of a great American novel!

  5. July 5, 2011 3:38 pm

    Glad you discovered this one and decided to publish it. Thanks to you we have another wonderful read to add to our list!

  6. July 5, 2011 6:09 pm

    Ooohhh this sounds fantastic, and possibly like something I might enjoy :)

  7. July 5, 2011 9:01 pm

    I need to read this! I’ve had it on my shelves for a while.

  8. July 5, 2011 9:20 pm

    Based on your description above, I think you’d really like the book Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Knowing you, you’ve already read the book, but the way it switches between POVs and time periods and narrative voices, all with a really poetic writing style- I think you’d like it.

    • July 11, 2011 3:25 am

      Ohh: I haven’t. I’ve tried to read Painted Drum twice and given up both times (I actually finished it in 2009! And wrote a review of it! And didn’t remember at all. :o), but now I’ll give Love Medicine a go. (Actually reading a nonfic book by Erdrich right now & really enjoying it!)

  9. July 5, 2011 11:37 pm

    I really want to read this! I was looking for it in Barnes and Nobles yesterday but sadly they didn’t have it. I’m definitely hoping to read this soon. Great review. :-)

  10. July 6, 2011 8:45 am

    I know it’s an older post, but it made me realize that I really like your “Suggested Companion Reads”.

    PS: The cover is lovely!

    • July 11, 2011 3:25 am

      Thanks Alex! And I love that cover too. :)

  11. July 6, 2011 11:30 am

    I haven’t heard of this one before Eva, so I’m glad you’ve dusted this post and published it:) I don’t read much Latin American fiction so it’ll be a nice a change. And I LOVE the cover, it’s gorgeous.

  12. July 6, 2011 9:15 pm

    Sounds like a worthwhile read. Thanks for the review!

  13. July 7, 2011 9:52 am

    Nice review, Eva! I love the fact that the Grandmother breaks in frequently and makes corrections to the story :) It is also interesting to know that the book has footnotes. I love footnotes when they make the story more rich, but I am intimidated by them when they take over the story, as some of the experimentalists are doing today.

    • July 11, 2011 3:26 am

      These definitely don’t take over the story! :)

  14. July 7, 2011 11:23 am

    I have been mostly on the fence regarding this book (It gives me a ghostly feel). But your review has convinced me to give it a try!

    • July 11, 2011 3:26 am

      I wouldn’t say it’s ghostly; not spooky at all.

  15. July 8, 2011 4:24 pm

    You have sold me on this book. I have been hesitant to pick up Cisneros, but I couldn’t tell you why. The way you’ve described this book, I know I would enjoy it.

  16. July 13, 2011 6:37 pm

    I used this book in my thesis…I love it! It might be time for a re-read (although while I was writing my thesis, I swore I wouldn’t look at this book again for at least a decade). ;)

  17. November 16, 2011 12:28 pm

    I have got to read this. Melissa got me interested, but your mention of it recently is going to make me dig it out of my pile.


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