Set in the 1950s in rapidly-modernizing Puerto Rico, this is a coming of age story similar to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Consuelo Signe is growing up in a four-person home, with parents who cannot get along and a younger sister who needs watching over constantly. Far from being a normal bildungsroman, however, Consuelo’s growing up is disrupted by several factors. She can’t figure out how she’s supposed to treat the neighborhood transvestite, who is always around. Her best friend, a cousin who lives next door, is driven away from her family because of his “deviant” sexuality. Her sister retreats further into herself as she ages, until eventually her schizophrenia is so pronounced everyone can see it. These factors punctuate a normally neat story with all its regular trials, and make Consuelo’s story far more interesting.
The microcosm of the Signe family represents the conflict in Puerto Rico as a whole: Americanism and new technology (Dad) versus Spanish culture and nature (Mom and grandparents). Consuelo’s grandfather rants and raves against anything remotely American. Consuelo’s father thinks that America is a miracle land and can fix any problem. He’s constantly getting new American products to bring home to his family. Consuelo’s mother is caught in the middle, torn between her childhood life in a small Pueblo community, living off the land, and her marriage to a man who likes new toys. She loves the convenience all these new toys give, but is simultaneously ashamed to be defying her roots. The choice is difficult and painful – lose your heritage for the sake of better stuff, or deny advancement for the sake of heritage?
This was a really enjoyable book. So much was woven in, with little glimpses into Puerto Rican culture in the 1950s. It only took me a few hours to read, and the ending surprised me. I loved Consuelo. Though she’s not noticed much by her family and the community as a whole in the beginning, she eventually makes a name for herself and shows that she’s a strong young woman who can get past obstacles thrown in her path. She makes mistakes and pays for them, but doesn’t let herself become beaten down by them. In her culture, the old rule was that man’s word was law, and obedience to her husband was a woman’s highest priority. That changes slowly over the generations, and women grow stronger and more independent, but Consuelo is the first (in her family) to question her supposed role as a woman.
Unlike other modern adult fiction, this one was tasteful and clean, even when dealing with controversial subjects. I really appreciated that. I don’t often like modern adult fiction, but this was very good. I nearly gave this book back to the library before reading it because the stack on my desk was too high, and now I’m so glad I didn’t. Highly recommended, particularly for women and for those who enjoy books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.