Kaleidoscopic portrait of a Southern California town whose nexus is an indomitable botánica owner.
For about three decades, Perla has been running Botánica Oshún, which sells charms, votive candles, books and a host of Mexican folk remedies. At 72, she has no family to speak of—her husband is dead, and they had no children—but she has plenty of interactions with the people who (often tentatively) step through the door of her shop in a strip mall about 50 miles outside of Los Angeles. Tracing a year in the life of Botánica Oshún, Espinoza’s debut shuttles between empathetic but unromanticized glimpses of Perla and snapshots of people who live in the neighborhood. At first her customers’ concerns are relatively modest: Rosa badly wants to lose weight; Juan tries to come to terms with his mother, who seems to be mourning Elvis Presley’s death more intensely than her own husband’s. But the novel’s tone and subject matter soon darken and intensify. A young woman attempts to expose her father’s infidelities to her self-deluding mother. Two friends drift deeper into meth addiction after one hooks up with a bad-news girlfriend. And a 15-year-old male prostitute who’s beaten and abused by his lover slips out of Perla’s reach. Title notwithstanding, the novel doesn’t try to sweeten, let alone sanctify, the troubled people it depicts. Perla is no saint, either; she’s even skeptical about the usefulness of what she sells. Espinoza occasionally overworks the end of a chapter to engineer a big finish, but he demonstrates a deep understanding of his characters. Setting their lives against Perla’s provides an inventive way to reflect the community’s diversity as well as its shared needs.
A well-crafted collection of vignettes, neatly stitched together.