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MAY 09, 2009


In The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters, these are the words the Gabaldón girls—Bette, Rita, Loretta and Sophia—are told every year on their birthday by the enigmatic Fermina, the family’s elderly Pueblo housekeeper. When the story opens, the girls’ mother has recently died and it is to Fermina the girls now turn for love, nurturing and mystic-laced wisdom. Fermina, approaching 100, is bed-ridden and ailing herself, however, and dies before she can further expound on the gifts she will bequeath. Loretta, an animal lover, decides the gifts must be magical in nature, and declares she has been granted the gift of healing animals. Rita, whose hurled taunt precedes the death of a playmate, realizes she’s been given the power to fatally curse people. Bette, the eldest and the wild one, can spin tall tales and lie effortlessly, much in the way the youngest, plus-sized Sophia has the power to make people laugh. Armed with these gifts, the four sisters make their way out in the world. The story spans two decades, narrated in turns by each sister. As adults, their curiosity increases over Fermina, her mysterious past, and these “gifts” that have both served and damaged their lives. Together the sisters embark on a hunt for an alleged set of reports that might provide some clue as to what Fermina truly intended to leave them.

Lorraine López, author of two award-winning works of fiction (Soy la Avon Lady and Other Stories and Call Me Henri) is a beguiling storyteller whose detailed, accessible prose immediately draws in the reader. Covering twenty years through four narrators from childhood is no easy feat and López handles the voice transitions and period details well. The disadvantage of multiple narrators, however, is that the reader tends to pick favorites. Sophia never came across to me as “making people laugh,” save for a poignant, beautifully written childhood chapter which includes a wry, self-deprecating digression on her curious looks, her weight, the irony of being named after the beautiful Sophia Loren. (All the Gabaldón children, including their brother Carey, were named after glamorous movie stars.) Likewise, Bette’s lying trait worked well in the earlier chapters, but seemed to taper off more into the story, becoming referenced more than demonstrated. Loretta, actualizing her gift, becomes a veterinarian, but it is Rita’s gift and story trajectory that come across as the most affecting. The ability to fatally curse someone is certainly a dramatic trait to bear, and López is at her storytelling best in the chapter when Rita works with the California Environmental Maintenance Corps. The interplay of character personalities and the organic nature of the plotting lead to a bittersweet, haunting conclusion that reverberates through the rest of Rita’s story, leaving the reader equally affected.

This is not to say the rest of the novel is not engrossing. Bette’s lively voice and chemically-enhanced irreverence carry through her story and make her the second most memorable character. Poor Sophia gets the short end of the stick here again; she comes in fourth place in terms of being memorable. Along with the quick disappearance of her gift and her less-than-satisfactory life trajectory, her narration in the second-person “you” voice was initially off-putting to me. (Each narrator is given a different voice in this way; Bette’s first-person present-tense narration might be one of the reasons I was drawn to her character.)

Nonetheless, The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters is a luscious, compelling read. There is so much to this story that I’m inclined to tell a reader to read it through one time for pure enjoyment and then a second time in order to pick up the subtle clues (sometimes too subtle) to the poignant story behind the story. This is not just confectionary fiction, in the end. In the “about the author” section in the back of the book, López mentions a nugget of her own family history that served as the seed for this story. Upon reading and reflecting on this, when I went back and reread the novel, I liked it even more. Initially I’d questioned the way the interspersed WPA reports detailing Fermina’s history disrupted the smooth flow of the narrative. The second time around, I recognized and appreciated the pacing and placement of each report.

This leads me to a question I often ponder as a writer who dabbles both in fiction and nonfiction. In its core mission, nonfiction enlightens and fiction entertains. An essay, while informing, can still entertain and tell a story, so is the reverse true? Certainly in other countries and cultures this is the case, but in the entertainment-focused USA? How wonderful, when a mainstream novel can tell a lively story and leave behind a bigger, culturally-informative imprint on the heart as well. The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters does a fine job of this, paying tribute to not just one silent, invisible woman from López’s ancestral past, but to all the immigrant women who quietly suffered at the hands of history and a male-dominated culture.

A recommended read from a strong writer who tells a good story. Be sure and read the “about the author” section and then give the book a reread. Like a good mole sauce, it’s even tastier when reheated and served up the second time.

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