My reading of contenders for the 2019 Tournament of Books continues with this much-lauded novel by Luis Alberto Urrea. Alas, although I’m not sure if it’s my mood or the book itself, this ended up being not a great book for me.
The novel is set in San Diego, where Big Angel, the patriarch of a large Mexican-American family is preparing to die, not long after the death of his mother. In fact, he and his family decide to combine what will most likely be his very last birthday party with the funeral of his mother, holding both events on the same weekend. A strange choice, perhaps, but the pragmatic side of me appreciates it. Plus, there’s something lovely about the combination of celebrating a life after its end and celebrating a life nearing its end. As it turns out Big Angel’s party gets most of the emotional weight. It’s the second event, he’s the center of the story, and he’s still around to be part of it.
The family is a large one, and the reader is thrown right into the melee, as Big Angel and his closest relatives prepare to go to the funeral. It took me a while to get a handle on all the relationships, especially because some of the characters are called by nicknames. I ended up making a little family tree, just to keep track. And even then, once the extended family arrives, there are people whose relationship to the core group is never made clear. Although this made the book a challenge to read, it didn’t really turn me off of it. I like big family stories, and I appreciated the many different aspects of the Mexican-American experience we could see through the many family members.
However, I ended up getting tired of the depiction of women, who are unfailingly nurturing or entirely sexual. It’s very much a book where the women feel like they’re filtered through a male gaze. Some of these depictions, especially that of Perla, Big Angel’s wife, are tender and sweet, but I would have liked to have seen at least one woman whose life didn’t seem to revolve around taking care of or having sex with the men in the book. And, for the most part, I don’t get what makes these men soooo appealing.
I did like the story of Little Angel, Big Angel’s younger half-brother (they share a father, but Little Angel’s mother was white). There are some interesting things about identity going on in his story, and I appreciated Urrea’s depiction of how his unease with being among the rest of the family interacted with his desire to be there and the warm (but uneasy) welcome he receives.
There’s also a subplot involving gang violence that never made much sense to me, although it was important in leading up to the book’s closing sequence. And there’s a queer son who is, unfortunately, sidelined for most of the book. I would have liked to hear more about him and the family’s attitude toward him. That thread is wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly.
I’ve seen a lot of reviews that describe this book as messy but ultimately magnificent. For me, the mess of it was a little too much. There are some great moments — the miniature city Big Angel built with a neighbor, the parrot, Big Angels funeral commentary — but the novel as a whole didn’t hang together for me. I think I would have liked this a lot more if it had been a book of short stories about the family. There would have been less need to impose a single (uneven) narrative thread over the whole thing, and the funeral and party could still have bookended the collection. And the great character moments and funny and sweet incidents could each have had a time to shine.