When I signed up for the 2013 Global Women of Color Reading Challenge I realized that while I had read several female authors from the Caribbean I didn’t have any ideas for female authors I wanted to read from continental Latin America. Luckily several other participants in the challenge helped me out with suggestions. Eva at The Striped Armchair strongly recommended Ángeles Mastretta and since I didn’t have any plans yet for a Mexican book, I decided to give her a try.
I went to the library intending to check out Mastretta’s novel Lovesick, but I happened to open her book Women with Big Eyes instead. I read the first two pages and decided I didn’t want to put it down. The book consists of brief stories about 39 ‘aunts’, based on relatives and friends of Mastretta. Each is very short- more of an anecdote or a vignette than a story. Most of the tales focus on a relationship with a man, whether a husband, a boyfriend, or a lover, but the men are mostly in the background rather than foreground. It is the women who are vivid and colorful. While most of the aunts’ lives fit within relatively traditional gender roles (I get the impression that they are a generation older than Mastretta), they are not passive by any means.
One of my favorite stories was about Aunt Christina who was interesting, but not pretty- “Unfortunately, the men of Puebla weren’t looking for interesting women to marry.” So, having reached the unmarriageable old age of 21, she takes matters into her own hands and leaves for Spain, ostensibly with a mysterious Spanish husband. Six months later she returns as a widow. Aunt Christina, free from the stigma of being an old maid, can now enjoy a happy single life with her family and friends.
It’s the writing style and the people that I enjoyed most about the book. Mastretta makes particularly effective use of lots of parallel structure to bring her characters to life:
“From her mother, Aunt Jacinta inherited a debilitating melancholy… She would grow sad about not having been born in Norway on a stormy night, about never having been to the Congo or never knowing whether she was capable of traveling through India… She had five children, and she would never know what it was like to have two or what it would be like to have ten. She had a medium-size house and a businessman husband; she would never know palaces or hunger. Her husband’s hair was brown and docile; she would never understand what it was to caress coarse black hair like Emiliano Zapata’s, a golden head like Henry Ford’s or a completely bald one like Bishop Toriz’s.”
Overall though, I didn’t enjoy Women with Big Eyes as much as I expected to. After a while, I found the shortness of the stories dissatisfying. I wanted something more substantial. I think that’s primarily a matter of my personal preference rather than a fault of the book. It might have been better to pick the book up occasionally and savor a few stories at a time instead of reading it straight through as I did. Regardless, I’m glad I followed Eva’s recommendation because I loved the writing style and I definitely plan to read one of Ángeles Mastretta’s novels.