First-novelist and award-winning poet Senz (Calendar of Dust, 1991, etc.) attempts a big book about race and family, love and death, but fails to rise above melodrama. Diego lives a life of poverty in El Paso, scraping by as a cook at a small bar. The people he works for and with are uncaring, and he has few friends. Not surprisingly, then, Diego feels disconnected from the world, so much so that he regularly revises a long suicide letter. Meanwhile, his sister Helen lives in Palo Alto -- a geographic distance from her brother that reflects a rejection of their ethnic background. Given a chance to escape the barrio, Helen took it, and in the process discarded her heritage. She tells people she's Italian and pretends she doesn't understand Spanish. Everyone is fooled, including husband Eddie and best friend Elizabeth, though Helen feels great guilt over her lies and her separation from Diego. At the same time, the people around her are dragging about by their own burdens: Eddie and his brother are haunted by the memory of their father, a sadistic pedophile; Elizabeth also has an abusive father and later discovers that she was given up for adoption by her mother, a Mexican maid; another character has AIDS. On and on it goes, as the bad, bad world batters the pure in heart. Fortunately, though, nearly everyone experiences uplifting (if inauthentic) moments: Helen, for instance, admits her family background to Eddie, who then immediately blurts out how his father sexually abused him -- which essentially cures both of their problems. Near the end, Helen (who now answers to Maria Elena, her birth name) and Eddie move to El Paso so she can reunite with Diego. Talky, predictable, and pretentious. A tear-filled confessional â€¦ la Oprah, with a Hispanic twist.