THE SKIN OF THE SKY by Elena Poniatowska


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A poor young man grows up to be an eminent astronomer.

Lorenzo de Tena and his siblings are the offspring of an affair between a rich urbanite and a peasant, but, unlike the others, Lorenzo doggedly follows his passion for the stars. Poniatowska (Here’s to You, Jesúsa, 2001, etc.) follows his doings among a group of friends obsessed with sex and making money; a brother who turns into a criminal and pipe-dreamer; and a sister whose pregnancies land her in a boarding house-cum-brothel. When Lorenzo’s native brilliance is recognized, Mexico’s foremost astronomer takes him under his wing and he’s sent to Harvard, where he ends up in an affair with the brilliant humanist Lisa and befriends other young men who share his passion for the stars. His emotional obligations to Mexico and his mentor pull him back, but Lisa’s refusal to go along embitters him. In Mexico, the elder astronomer begins to act irrationally, and soon Lorenzo takes over the country’s principal observatory. As he becomes more prominent and authoritarian, he decries the lack of support for Mexican science even as he rises in stature, making discovery after discovery and rising in international renown. Gradually, he turns curmudgeonly, and, other than astronomy, only the presence of the young woman Fausta, who works at the observatory, can intrigue him. He treats his acolytes mercurially and with disdain. A respected student whom he sends to the California Institute of Technology commits suicide. Then Lorenzo rapes Fausta, who disappears forever. Working with such intellectual characters, Poniatowska is able to demonstrate her formidable erudition, but it overwhelms the slight narrative, an attempt to portray 60 years of a man’s personal and professional development in a bit over 300 pages. The pace rushes ahead, interesting characters drop away, and the reader too seldom really cares what happens.

A great concept, but it reads like Poniatowska gave up in the middle of the second draft.

Pub Date: Oct. 6th, 2004
ISBN: 0-374-26575-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2004


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