In this debut family saga, Moeller tells the story of a man sent on a mission into his family’s past by his estranged, dying father.
Thirty-six-year-old Art Romero researches neuropsychology at a college in Boston. He hasn’t seen his family, back in Albuquerque, for the last 17 years. He’s currently dating a woman named Sandra, but he’s afraid to commit to their relationship, as he was with all of his previous girlfriends. After he gets a message from his sister that their father, Al, is sick, Art debates whether he should go home to New Mexico to see him. It turns out that he’s dealing with quite a bit of emotional baggage. “You can do what you want,” his psychiatrist tells him when he asks her for advice. “If you go, it might be like a research project, except you’ll be involved.” Romero does end up going, but he doesn’t receive a warm welcome. His mother and sister regard him with suspicion, in part because he’s the only member of his Mexican-American family who passes for white in his daily life. But his dying father has a special request. He wants Art to contact his mother—Art’s grandmother—who has some secret information about the family’s origins in Mexico. Art’s mother, meanwhile, is afraid that when Al dies, his money will go to someone other than her—possibly her in-laws. To fulfill his father’s wishes, Art goes to El Paso, Texas, and Chihuahua, Mexico, taking photos, meeting relatives, and retracing his family’s history back to pre-revolutionary Mexico, which his branch fled long ago. Along the way, he tries to determine what his father was trying to come to terms with—and figure what’s driving himself to help his dad in that quest.
Moeller’s prose is simple and elegant throughout this novel, constructing subtle observations that often blossom into images of surprising beauty: “I put the disc into the projector and up pop the color graphs of the brain. If we have souls this is where they live—in these reds, blues, and yellows that are like an impressionist painting. ‘Here’s the perfect brain,’ I say. ‘Three pounds of convoluted matter.’ ” The hypnotic rhythms of the language help to pull the reader through the deliberately paced plot, often creating moments of mystery and tension where, in the hands of a lesser writer, they simply wouldn’t exist. She also probes the complexities of race in the American Southwest—including the notion of passing, and the impact that can have on one’s identity. Not every reader will appreciate this novel’s style, however; the revelations come quite slowly and are not particularly breathtaking, and Art’s brand of brooding masculinity, while familiar, isn’t all that relatable. Even so, Moeller offers a thoughtful story that takes a close look at how specific events and personalities can shape a family’s dynamic for generations, and at how one’s personal ambitions can be shaped or hindered by those of one’s parents.
A quietly lyrical novel of an American family.