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
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. …