Coming of Age

This novel about a Mexican-American teen is occasionally whiny, but overall worthwhile

In Ghosts of El Grullo, Patricia Santana's follow-up to her novel Motorcycle Ride on the Sea of Tranquility, we once again meet the young Chicana-American Yolanda "Yoli" Sahagún, who's growing up in '70s-era San Diego.

The first book centered on the distress Yoli and her family felt when her brother, Chuy, came back from Vietnam a changed man; this one picks up in Yoli's late teens, and, like its predecessor, is a nuanced, gorgeously written coming-of-age tale. A slightly erratic plot and an occasionally whiny main character stall the book here and there, but Santana's sensuous prose makes reading on worthwhile.

Yoli is a high school honors student about to head to the University of California at San Diego. Like most college-bound teens, she's absolutely enthralled with the idea of her future life. There's just one problem: her past life. There are her eight siblings, her comfortable (if crowded) home, and most of all, her two parents, reluctant to release her into the world. She, too, is deeply attached, but manages to wrench herself away in favor of dorms, books and boundless dreams. One happy semester passes, but then tragedy strikes: Her mother becomes gravely ill, while her father becomes erratic and cruel.

In order to brace herself for the unknown, Yoli decides to root herself more firmly in her past by visiting her parents' hometown of El Grullo, Mexico. She had visited many times as a child, each trip unearthing profound emotions about her relationship with her parents: "I was 11 years old and I was beginning my adolescent descent into hating my mother with the kind of fury that only a daughter who furiously loves her mother can have." Visiting again as an adult, Yoli hears tales of her parents' past from her doting, eccentric aunts, and is told over and over again how she is the very image of the mother she so adores.

As she meditates more on her saintly mother, she becomes full of rage toward her domineering father, who yells, cheats and tries to contain his daughters with a force rivaled only by a steel cage. Her father's strictness and her family's Catholicism create tension as Yoli tries to forge her own life. It's the '70s, after all: Sex and drugs are all around, and Yoli sees their appeal, but can't quite bring herself to indulge. Santana also explores the delicacy of self-identification for an American-born Mexican--especially one with light blue eyes and pale skin.

At times, the book feels a little ... whiny. "For this I hated her and I loved her," and variations on that phrase, including a bunch that substitute "him" for "her," are scattered throughout, which is overtly Freudian. We're all familiar with complicated emotions when it comes to parents and families, and a few of Yoli's problems are indeed extraordinary. But around the third time she expresses her desire to have her mother sleeping in bed with her, comforting and protecting her against nightmares and imagined ghosts, two very distinct words start to form: Grow up.

Still, Santana is a prodigiously gifted stylist. The book is infused with the sights, smells and sounds of a particularly sensory youth. Yoli is often to be found picking up pomegranates, admiring fine-crafted fabrics, tasting homemade tortillas and rich hot chocolate. This is where Santana is at her best; her rich, descriptive prose makes you feel the Mexican humidity, see the sea sparkle in her father's blue eyes, and remember (whether you want to or not) the fulmination of angst, rage and hormones inside the teenage body. Santana seamlessly integrates Spanish terms without distracting the English-only reader, weaving it into the story so it's more of a sensory experience than a linguistic one. Still, even she trips over her feet here and there, concocting an overly wrought phrase or two, like when she describes the season of her mother's illness as "the season of the womanly fig, with its dark, thin peel and its milky stem like a mother's breast, the inside pink and fleshy, the passage to lovemaking and childbearing."

For the most part, Santana strikes a fine balance between the real and the mystical. "Huge spiders, poisonous scorpions, and anguished phantoms had dominion here," she writes of her family's Mexican estate. Sure, some signals are mixed, but that's what the late-adolescent years are all about. One moment, you're absolutely certain who you are and what you're about; the next, you're hoping your mother will get into bed and keep you safe in her arms. Santana captures this beautifully, but young women will probably enjoy this book quite a bit more than others. Good for her; when it comes to young women, there's plenty of angst to spare, and they're always glad to find a kindred spirit.

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