In this novel, a 5-year-old girl in 1950s Los Angeles observes her family’s colorful mix of cultures and generations, often aided by her supernatural perceptions.
At 5, young Lala is still figuring out how life works as the only child living with four adults: her parents and Swiss maternal grandparents. Some things are eternal, like new Easter outfits that must include matching “[h]at, dress, coat, purse, gloves, socks, and shoes, according to my mother’s fashion Bible.” Big holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas mean decorating, food and entertaining, plus plenty of tension between her mother and grandmother. Tension is also a fact of Lala’s life. Her glamorous and charismatic mother, a school principal and civil rights activist, gave up her dreams and is often angry. Meanwhile, her handsome Mexican Indian/Spanish father loves to gamble at the Santa Anita racetrack. Hardly anyone believes young Lala when she tries to describe the auras she sees; the adults just praise her imagination, so she definitely doesn’t tell them about talking with her dead uncle Eddie or the statue of Our Lady. These supernatural encounters are reassuring and strengthening, and Lala’s paternal Mexican grandmother further helps put Lala in touch with her divine sight. In her debut novel, Amondragon presents a series of vivid sketches incorporating magical realism and well-observed insights about the varied characters and settings in Lala’s life. Characters have complex personalities, such as the father’s brand of working-class cosmopolitanism: “He spoke Spanish, English with an accent, Nahuatl, Mandarin, a little Cantonese, and pidgin English. He…entered into politics in Mexico, but as a young lawyer became a disillusioned socialist. He could swim like Johnny Weissmuller and ride horses like Zorro.” LA of the 1950s comes through strongly, with vignettes populated by people such as “Freddy the Flocker,” who sprays Christmas trees with fake snow: “Freddy was very proud to be the ‘Flocker to the Stars.’ ” The story skates close to the saccharine, especially in supernatural scenes, but mostly provides enough grit and darkness for balance.
An enjoyable, lively novel of magical realism from a young girl’s point of view.