Peel My Love Like An Onion: A Novel

Peel My Love Like An Onion: A Novel

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The seductive world of flamenco forms the backdrop for a classic tale of independence found, lost, and reclaimed. Like Bizet's legendary gypsy, Carmen "La Coja" (The Cripple) Santos is hilarious, passionate, triumphant, and mesmerizing. A renowned flamenco dancer in Chicago despite the legacy of childhood polio, Carmen has long enjoyed an affair with Agustn, the married director of her troupe--a romance that's now growing stale. When she begins a new, passionate liaison with Manolo, Agustn's grandson and a dancer of natural genius, an angry rivalry is sparked. Carmen finally makes her way back to happiness in this funny, fiery story that's equal parts soap opera, tragicomedy, and rhapsody. Ana Castillo's voice is one of self-confident, hypnotic melancholy. Peel My Love Like an Onion, her fifth book, often reads like a diary rather than a novel--full of dashed-off midnight eloquence but unformed. It's the story of Carmen Santos, a flamenco dancer whose right leg is shriveled from polio. Her family moved from Mexico to Chicago before she was born: "My first language was Spanish but I am not really Mexican. I guess I am Chicago-Mexican." Castillo sees the immigrant experience as a minefield of ironies. Carmen works at the Domino's in the airport as a way of being a productive American, thus gaining her father's respect. One morning on a "power walk" she realizes that the shoes she is wearing may have been made in a sweatshop by some distant relative from "somewhere... very foreign, like seaweed-and-black-fungus-in-French-Vietnamese-soup foreign."

As the book moves back and forth between Carmen's dreams of economic and emotional freedom and her erotic life (in which passion often feels as much like a trap as a release), Castillo's fluid style often lapses into carelessness. And there is a blurred quality to many of the images, like photographs taken from a moving car. Carmen's story is most engaging when she experiences isolated moments of independence: flamenco dancing, for instance, for the customers at a hair salon where she is working, dragging her bad leg around in front of the ladies under the hair dryers. The scene--a moment to relish--is almost heroic in its defiance of the exhausted world. --Emily White

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