Debut novelist Espiritu tells of the struggles of a mixed-race woman, torn between Filipino and American cultures.
Pearl’s mother, Aurora, was a sort of mail-order bride for her American father, Red. Members of both sides of the family fretted about the marriage for racial and cultural reasons, even though people of mixed Caucasian and Filipino heritage are valued in the Philippines for their perceived beauty. Aurora herself, however, is the result of a different mixed-race coupling: a rape that remains a closely guarded family secret, which Pearl doesn’t discover until later in life. The novel traces Pearl’s development from her beginnings in Evanston, Illinois, to her courtship by P.J., the scion of a powerful Filipino political family; and Brian, an American suitor. Soon Brian falls by the wayside, and it appears that P.J. will marry Pearl—until his family discovers her family’s secrets and snubs her. Pearl then moves to New York to pursue a career as a flight attendant. There, she’s raped by an intruder in her apartment; she later spots her assailant on a flight and informs the police, who gun him down at the airport. Many years later, while running a Filipino restaurant in Illinois, Pearl meets P.J. again. He never married, and the two agree to wed—but then tragedy strikes again. Espiritu offers a poignant tale that explores the difficulties of conflicting cultures. His strengths are in illuminating the dark shadows of family secrets, limning the tensions of race, and portraying an exuberant, exotic Filipino culture full of colorful fiestas, foods, and superstitions. The characters tend to be sketchily drawn rather than fully realized, however. Readers know Pearl only through a skin-deep description of her beauty, and they get few insights into her thoughts, beyond some journal entries in which she concludes that she’s not an “ideal woman,” according to Filipino tradition. The dialogue is occasionally stilted, and the narrative is sometimes hampered by clichés; for example, characters always seem to be “smiling from ear to ear.” The plot also sometimes stumbles into inexplicable dead ends and unbelievable twists, such as the unlikely, unbelievable airport shootout, and scenes involving a fortuneteller-turned-jewelry-saleswoman who pops up only briefly.
Despite its flaws, an often worthy, if tragic, tale of festering family secrets, cultural conflicts, and failed hopes.