Threads of a Colorful Family ; the Long Wait Is Over: Sandra Cisneros Has Finally Come Home with Another Wonderful Novel

Article excerpt

Eighteen years ago, Sandra Cisneros published a novel of little scenes called "The House on Mango Street." It's become a classic for readers of all ages, giving voice to the Hispanic American experience the way "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" does for African Americans. In a business that pushes authors to press out a book every 18 months - ready or not - the pressure on Cisneros to capitalize on her popularity must have been intense.

But she wasn't going to be rushed. Yes, there's been some fine poetry and even a collection of short stories in 1991, but that only made us more impatient for the next novel. Indeed, there was anxious talk that she might be another One Great Book Author like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger (or, some might say, Maya Angelou).

Fortunately, she was just waiting to get it right. "Caramelo" is a novel worthy of the tremendous anticipation that's built up over those 18 years. It's a swirling dinner-table collection of family tales, sloshing full of tears and laughter.

The deceptive simplicity of "The House on Mango Street" allowed it to take hold even on middle school reading lists across the country, but the length and sophisticated structure of "Caramelo" may limit its accessibility. Indeed, Cisneros seems constrained by nothing in this lavish story about four generations of Mexican- Americans. She moves across literary borders as easily as these characters trek back and forth from Mexico City to Chicago. ("Caramelo" is also available in a Spanish-language edition.)

Little Lala Reyes tells the first part of the novel, a cramped sweaty car trip to visit the Awful Grandmother in Mexico. It's a fantastic description, full of a child's frustrations and delights, recalled through her fragmented understanding and memory of the tension between her parents.

Cisneros uses a style that captures the knotted voices, events, and impressions of a large family gathering. Lala's attention runs from the horror of losing her braids to the thrill of seeing Mexico City rise on the horizon: "The center of the universe! The valley like a big bowl of hot beef soup before you taste it." At the end of their trip stands the Awful Grandmother, tossing a shawl across her chest, "the big black X at the map's end."

A summer under this woman's strict attention is almost more than Lala can bear, and it's certainly more than her passionate mother can endure. The house strains under the weight of so much familia, so much fiesta, and so much criticism for each other's culture, old and new.

The furnace in this crowded dwelling - and the engine that powers the entire novel - is the Awful Grandmother's burning love for her oldest son, Lala's father. It's a love that leaves no room for anyone else. Every belabored tortilla is a rebuke to her daughter- in-law's fast food up North. She sees in her grandchildren only the horrible effects of their American upbringing and their mother's laxity. She's an Oedipal nightmare who clutches at her son and worships him to the exclusion of all else. …