"In Urrea's exuberant new novel of Mexican-American life, 70-year-old patriarch Big Angel de la Cruz is dying, and he wants to have one last birthday blowout. Unfortunately, his 100-year-old mother, America, dies the week of his party, so funeral and birthday are celebrated one day apart. The entire contentious, riotous de la Cruz clan descends on San Diego for the events. High rollers and college students, prison veternaos and welfare mothers, happy kids and sad old-timers and pinches gringos and all available relatives. Not to mention figurative ghosts of the departed and an unexpected guest with a gun. Taking place over the course of two days, with time out for an extended flashback to Big Angel's journey from La Paz to San Diego in the 1960s, the narrative follows Big Angel and his extended familia as they air old grievances, initiate new romances, and try to put their relationships in perspective. Of the large cast, standouts include Perla, Big Angel's wife, the object of his undimmed affection; Little Angel, his half-Anglo half-brother, who strains to remain aloof; and Lalo, his son, trailing a lifetime of bad decisions. Urrea (The Hummingbird's Daughter) has written a vital, vibrant book about the immigrant experience that is a messy celebration of life's common joys and sorrows"--Publisher's weekly.
“Big Angel could not reconcile himself to this dirty deal they had all been dealt. Death. What a ridiculous practical joke. Every old person gets the punch line that the kids are too blind to see. All the striving, lusting, dreaming, suffering, working, hoping, yearning, mourning, suddenly revealed itself to be an accelerating countdown to nightfall.
....This is the prize: to realize, at the end, that every minute was worth fighting for with every ounce of blood and fire.”
Big Angel overflows with life, imperfect, declining, but still treasuring sensuality with his beloved Perla, and filling notebooks with memories of what he's loved. Most notebook entries are one word, like "family" and "oysters".
“And everyone loved sunsets. The light lost its sanity as it fell over the hills and into the Pacific--it went red and deeper red, orange, and even green. The skies seemed to melt, like lava eating black rock into great bite marks of burning. Sometimes all the town stopped and stared west. Shopkeepers came from their rooms to stand in the street. Families brought out their invalids on pallets and in wheelbarrows to wave their bent wrists at the madness consuming their sky. Swirls of gulls and pelicans like God's own confetti snowed across those sky riots.”
The book invites the reader into an irresistible family party. And what a family! Half-brother Little Angel comes from Seattle, envied by all for his assumed American wealth. Is Little Angel overshadowed, or able to walk in his own light? La Gloriosa, up in years now but still yearned for by all the men; as she explains, her beauty is "aided but not diminished by artifice". Ookie, seemingly mentally slow, but of hidden genius. Perla, who risked all to come to northern Mexico with Big Angel, and was rewarded with an adoring love and a larger than life partner. Son Yndio, a bruising physical specimen with a love for cabaret performing as a woman. And on and on.
Like many family gatherings, some exchanges are hilariously lowbrow, and some are poignantly highbrow.
“There is a minute in the day, a minute for everyone, though most everyone is too distracted to notice its arrival. A minute of gifts coming from the world like birthday presents. A minute given to every day that seems to create a golden bubble available to everyone.”
I loved this novel. Bear with it in the beginning, as you start to sort out who's who. Five stars.
“That is the prize: to realize, at the end, that every minute was worth fighting for with every ounce of blood and fire.”
Miguel Angel De La Cruz, also known as Big Angel is ailing. He doesn't think he has much time left and when his mother suddenly dies, as she approaches her 100th birthday. This beloved patriarch decides to throw a big birthday bash for himself and for his big, shaggy, but lovable family, in their San Diego neighborhood.
Most of the events here, other than the flashbacks, take place over one long weekend, as the party preparations come together, in quite dramatic and humorous ways. We are introduced to quite a cast of characters, but at the center of the novel are Big Angel and his young brother Little Angel, (based somewhat on the author).
This is a Mexican-American family but I think it is an American story, first and foremost. Urrea proves, once again that he is a master storyteller. Yes, there is humor and pathos here but every so often Urrea floors the reader with a stream of gorgeous, poetic prose. If you are looking for the perfect summer read, look no further.
**This is also wonderful on audio, with Urrea doing a fantastic job narrating.
The family gathers – a wonderful sprawling Mexican-American family. Some are legal immigrants; some are not. There are black sheep, including one who has decided to sell drugs and it is not welcome. A half brother, Little Angel, has a white mother and is a university professor in Seattle. There are old feuds and jealousies and rehashes of past disagreements.
Later editions of the book have a detailed family genealogy included. While many people in the PBS group read thought this was helpful, I enjoyed the confusion of not quite knowing who was who – it reminded me of my own family reunions.
Through it all, Big Angel keeps an unexpected and surprisingly heartfelt gratitude journal.
Touching, sprawling, at times humorous, I really enjoyed this book.
Over the course of one day, this large family comes together to celebrate. Secrets will be revealed, connections made, grief, sadness, regrets, love and joy. There is so much humor, almost at times like a who's on first parody. Family means everything, and we find out the good and bad. Emotional wounds are healed, this is one very full day. By no means a fast read, not because of pacing but because so many meaningful things happen that if one doesn't pay attention it can be missed.
I enjoyed this book, enjoyed this family , with all their flaws and missed opportunities. Even though I didn't stress myself by trying to remember who went were, by books end it all came together. Loved the message of family, for good or bad, and reading from a different viewpoint how they view being American, and what they do to adapt. Have read that this is loosely based on the authors family, the role of big Angel based on his brothers life. Well done.
ARC from Netgalley.
Quotes: "Pigeons flocked all about the alpine roofline, moving neurotically from palm tress to mortuary to taqueria and back again, frantic that one of them might have found an onion ring that had been overlooked by the others."
"Her small flock of doggies was scuttling around like animated empanadas on meth."
"That ravaged face held two ardent coals - his black eyes shone with mad light, hunger for the world, amusement, and excitement. They raged with delight in everything."
"They thought he was stupid, as parents often do. Well, he was stupid, as children often are."
"There is a minute in the day, a minute for everyone, though most everyone is too distracted to notice its arrival. A minute that seems to create a golden bubble available to everyone."
"Big Angel was aware of the sad steps of the dance. When you died, you died in small doses. And then you suddenly felt better and fooled yourself into believing that a miracle was about to happen. Well, wasn't that all a dirty rotten thing to pull on somebody."
"Men who do good deeds only wish to atone for their sins."
"Big Angel's favorite definition of Mexican was "Out of nothing, food."
" Every man dies with secrets. A life was a long struggle to come to terms with things and keep some things from others."
"There were always more details trailing any good story. Like tin cans on the back bumper of a newlywed's car. Rattles and pings and wonderful small moments spinning in the wake of a great life."
The novel traces Big Angel’s story from his youth in La Paz, Mexico under the domineering presence of his father Don Antonio to his exile from the family that eventually takes him to Tijuana and San Diego, California. Along the way, we meet many of the important people in his life, including his beloved wife Perla, their siblings, their children, and their seemingly countless nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. Big Angel’s journey is often hard and heartbreaking, but one that is filled with considerable joy as well. Urrea’s storytelling is heartfelt and beautiful, at once elegiac and humorous in roughly equal measures, with a fair amount of Spanglish thrown in for authentic measure.
As he reveals at the outset in a letter to the reader, this is a deeply personal account for the author, whose alter ego appears in the character of Little Angel, the younger brother who has spent much of his adult life trying to escape the family’s influence. The two brothers share a decidedly complicated history—they have the same father but different mothers, and both are conflicted about various aspects of their Mexican-American heritage. While much of the narrative development in The House of Broken Angels is devoted to explaining and resolving their relationship, that is not the essence of the novel. Urrea set out to make this a story about “la familia” and he has succeeded admirably in doing just that. These are characters who will stay with me for a while.
Big Angel is dying, but he has one last birthday celebration before he goes. When his mother dies, he even postpones her funeral a week so that people won't have to make two trips. The House of Broken Angels takes place over a single weekend, where relatives are brought together at Big Angel's house in San Diego, from a university professor to an undocumented veteran, and everyone in between. Urrea draws a vivid portrait of a large family and of the complex and flawed man who has fought to protect them. He's both unsparing and compassionate in his portrayal and I was so sorry when the last chapter ended.
"He believed he was celebrating them when he shared stories of their foibles. He felt the burden of being their living witness. Somehow the silliest details of their days were, to him, sacred. And he believed that if only the dominant culture could see these small moments, they would see their own human lives reflected in the other." - page 168
These words, to me, stated the purpose of Urrea's story: to celebrate the small moments. The more sad and crushing purpose is noted that Urrea wanted to write a story about Mexicans for the "dominant" culture, especially in these times with that ridiculous wall shut down. To even see the phrase "dominant culture" is heartbreaking to me... I don't see things that way about any culture, but I am a white person with my white privilege perspective. So perhaps even this phrase hits a reader where it's supposed to. But to think that Urrea needed to write a book about Mexicans just to have other cultures relate to them is heartbreaking. But there is clear evidence that so many people can't relate to other people/cultures. Readers are already skilled at having empathy for all people, no matter who it is. Sadly, the people who would benefit most from this book would never pick up this book.
My only gripe with the book was I had a hard time keeping track of who were sisters, brothers, cousins, sons, daughters, et cetera, which made it difficult to keep the generations and ages straight.
As I read, this family took residence in my heart. They were not so unlike my own family. I remembered the large family gatherings of my childhood; we have our 'colorful' characters, too. My cousins and I are are too quickly becoming the oldest generation--the next to die.
Through the story of one particular Mexican-American family, The House of Broken Angels recalls what it means to be family. Through the life and death of one man, we grapple with the purpose of our own life and death.
Big Angel's grandfather came to America after the Mexican Revolution, tried to enlist for service during WWI, then in 1932 the family was deported back to Mexico. He was First Angel.
Big Angel's deceased father, a cop, is still a powerful presence in the lives of Big Angel and his half-brother, Little Angel. He was feared, he was idolized, and he was hated. Big Angel's dad abandoned his family for an American woman,"all Indiana milk and honey" with "Cornflower-blue eyes." He had 'forgotten' he had a son named Angel in his first family. The half-brothers have had an uneasy relationship.
At his seventieth birthday party, Big Angel is surrounded by his beloved Perla and their children, Perla's sisters who he helped raise, his half-siblings, and grandkids. Those who have died, and a son who has been estranged, are present in aching hearts.
As Big Angel struggles with how to die, how to atone for his sins, and the legacy he wants to leave his family, we learn the family's stories, the things that have divided and alienated them, and the things that bind them together. They will break your heart and they will inspire you with the strength and love of their family bonds. The revelation of this purpose is the climax of the novel, a scene that you will never forget.
Author Luis Alberto Urrea was inspired by his own family in writing this book. His eldest brother was dying when a day before his birthday he had to bury his mother. The family put on a 'blowout party, the kind of ruckus he would have delighted in during better days."
Urrea also wanted to tell the story of Mexican-American families, about immigrants and the American dream, living on the border between two countries and cultures, the hopes and dreams and cruel realities.
Reviewers use the word exuberant in describing this book. It is!
I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Having said all that, at page 300 I got hooked. Rather late in the book for that to happen but it did. And the ending and message it imparted tugged at my heart. So this is worth a read and who knows, one may like the first 300 pages better than I did.