A loosely concatenated narrative that features Sabina, a second-generation Colombian-American, as she grows up, has relationships and tries to make sense of her life and world.
Engel’s work could be considered either a series of stories or an “approximate” novel. The first story introduces us to 14-year-old Sabina, whose uncle has recently killed his wife. While this act casts a shadow on Sabina’s family of “foreigners, spics, in a town of blancos," she’s more preoccupied with Lucho, a boyfriend (of sorts) two years older. Lucho is charismatic, an accomplished smoker—and a practiced bad boy. One of the first traumas of Sabina’s life is having to deal with his death in an automobile accident. “Refuge,” the following story, takes place around 9/11. Sabina, now 22, is a receptionist at an investment bank. While her life is saved because she called in sick that day rather than showed up at her office in Tower One, Engel is interested in the small gesture, not the arc of terrorism. Once again, the focus is on relationships, in this case musician Nico, her irresponsible boyfriend, and Lou, a guitar teacher whose jealous wife keeps a close eye on Sabina. By the end of the story Sabina has learned her relationship with Nico is as doomed as the Twin Towers, and when it ends it is “uneventful, the way most life-changing moments are. You don’t see them happening." In the next story we learn of the death of anorexic Maureen, who’d gone to high school with Sabina and made her life unbearable. Here Sabina explores her own ambivalence toward this unlikable, pathetic and sad woman. The longest story (or chapter) is “Vida.” In it we find Sabina still wrestling with unfaithful boyfriends, yet she’s able to help a friend escape a failed relationship and “escape” back to Colombia.
Engel’s portraits—especially of her main character—are edgy, perceptive and razor sharp.