The consequences of poverty and a mother’s addiction reverberate through her family and their community.
When we first meet Arcelia, she's running from the police with her youngest child, 3-year-old Trini, in her arms. She can't run forever, though; soon she's arrested on charges related to drugs and prostitution. All three of her children watch as she's led away in handcuffs, left to contend with a world of hunger, solitude, and fear of social services. The Perez family often feels as if it’s perched on the brink of destruction, surviving rather than living. The novel is told through a number of different narrators, including Arcelia, her 11-year-old son, Cristo, and her 10-year-old-daughter, Luz. Cristo’s chapters are perhaps the most compelling; he struggles with his desire to protect and provide for his family in spite of his age and begins running errands for neighborhood drug dealers. There are times when Cristo’s fierce determination and beyond-his-years observations are suddenly subverted by moments of naiveté, and we are reminded that in spite of his apparent independence, he is still very much a child. Other narrators are not as successful—for example, Miss Valentín, Cristo’s teacher, who's assigned the somewhat clichéd role of the caring teacher who sees her students’ potential where others do not. As a result, she feels tired on the page and maybe too good to be true. The novel can be a little too exact; overall themes are sometimes explained outright by the characters in ways that undermine their complexity.
While there are moments that feel trite, they are almost balanced by moments of honest rage, hope, and vulnerability.