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.