It is definitely not a romance. Lopez's enjoyable novel teeters on the edge of fluffy comedy, but also treats serious issues like class, unemployment, and Buddhism.
What happens when a woman becomes middle-class through education and suddenly her friends and relatives are a class or two beneath her? This is the situation of the frazzled Latina narrator, Marina, a middle-school English teacher who used to work in insurance. She isn't immediately in the market for love, having broken up with her sleazy boyfriend. Yet she must continue to deal with her family's and friends' problems, as those with less education seek her emotional support and free room and board.
Marina is so busy helping others that she can't solve her own problems. People keep intruding. Her unemployed nephew, Kiko, and his best friend, Reggie, jilted by Marina's sister, Xochi, live with her, and the living room smells of funky socks. Because Kiko's mother kicked him out, and because he is dyslexic, Marina is sympathetic, but things have gone too far.
Her ex-boyfriend Rudy's crazy friend, Nestor, wants to purify her house with some voodoo spell in return for a deposition supporting his desire to take away his children from their mother. (Marina refuses.) She is still in touch with Rudy's daughter, Letty, who has a nervous breakdown when her baby dies.
Here is an example of the witty, smart voice that can surprise one with its occasional sharpness.
"You wouldn't expect so many people to make it out on a Friday morning to attend a funeral for a five-month-old baby, but the chapel is so jam-packed with cristianos and the parking lot arrayed with so many motorcycles that it looks like a breakout session at Bike Week in Daytona. The place reeks with exhaust emissions, sweat, and stale cigarette smoke. I'm sure it means a lot to Miguel that his church group turns out big-time to support him on the day when he and Letty bury their son, but I can't help wondering where and if any of these people work. Who would hire them?"
And there is dating. While teaching summer school, she gets to know an attractive substitute teacher who is an artist. At the hospital, she meets a nerdy doctor who wants to date her. She is a little flustered when he invites her to take a nap with him. He means nap--literally.
Although Marina longs to be a Buddhist and reads the Dalai Lama, she has little time for prayer. Yet things may work out for her.
Lopez, a professor in the creative writing program at Vanderbilt, has painted a sensitive, vivid portrait of a first-generation college graduate.
Joseph Heller. Walter Kirn's excellent article on Joseph Heller at Slate was inspired by the 50th anniversary of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, an anti-war classic (and so much more), and by a new biography, Tracy Daugherty's Just one Catch.
Heller's daughter Erica Heller has also written a memoir, Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22.
Time to get out the Heller.