Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Cake Can Be Good For You

The Dirty Girls Social Club, by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, Read by Isabel KeatingBBC Audiobooks America, 2003

One of my aims in listening to so many audiobooks through the last two years has been to prompt myself to broaden the range of what I read and listen to. That they are audiobooks makes it easier, as I rarely have to live with the consequences for longer than two evenings in a row should the book prove to be a dud (and I have the delicious bonus of being able to savage it in print). Without such proddings, I easily fall into a rut of reading only the things I’ve already heard about, things that have been recommended to me, or things I’ve read once before. While this is all fine and good as far as quantity goes — I will never run out of books I’ve heard good things about — there is still the missing dread/anticipation that comes with something wholly new and unknown.

Which brings us to the tantalizingly titled The Dirty Girls Social Club, LA Times reporter Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s debut novel about six young Latina women all on the verge of life changing events. Friends since they met in college and dubbed themselves “sucias” (dirty girls), they have made a point of staying in contact, mostly by living near each other, but most dramatically by an annual girl’s night out to which attendance is mandatory. The novel opens, as you might expect, on the night of one such meeting, which allows for us to get a short portrait of each of the women.

One of the difficulties in following a novel like this, at least in the beginning, is that six characters, with their associated mates, making approximately major 12 characters we need to keep track of, as well as the tacked on, obligatory parents, is too much story all at once. As a result, many authors of large-casted books, and Valdes-Rodriguez falls into this category, feel the need to draw sharp distinctions among the characters, too sharp distinctions that often have an artificial feel. While I recognize that many people are friends with people precisely for their differences, it feels unlikely that six such people, with damn near no overlap in tastes, interests, or lifestyles, should remain in such close contact after graduation.

And so we meet Lauren, the authorial stand-in, a feisty columnist at the Boston Globe, who can't help falling for losers; Usnavys, once the poorest of them all, who grew up to be rich, but can’t bring herself to commit to the man she loves since he doesn’t match her own earning potential and expensive tastes; Rebecca, the born-again Christian, fearful humanitarian, uptight yet successful magazine publisher married to a trust fund phony philosopher; Amber, the Californian Hispanic rock star who has gotten deep into her Indian roots and culture, changed her name to Cuicatl and is about to be hugely successful; Elizabeth, beautiful and quiet, this local Columbian TV anchor is a closeted lesbian and about to become a national news when she’s outed in a gossip column; and finally Sara, a Martha-Stewart-perfect life homemaker with an abusive husband.

Part of what helps with this panoply of Valdes-Rodriguez’s is her decision to let each of the sucias takes a turn telling the story, so we get to hear about the hidden and not-so hidden currents underlying female relationships. The opposite qualities of Lauren and Rebecca give their relationship a kind of rivalry missing from the other women’s friendships, with the usual reason underlying it. Lauren, who is a bit of an alcoholic and who lives with her emotions just barely under the surface, sees in Amber the composed dignity she wishes she possessed, while Amber in turn wishes she could truly express herself for once. Everyone worries about Lauren’s drinking, everyone despises Sara’s husband and quietly talks about their violent marriage, everyone thinks of Amber like their baby sister, everyone thinks Usnavys should just marry the guy already, and everyone is constantly up in each other’s business.

It’s a chatty kind of book and what makes it better, more entertaining than many another book of this particular genre of chick-lit, is just how funny Valdes-Rodriguez is in her telling. She doesn’t strive for any grand literary value, doesn’t seek to make the book anything deeper than a quick beach read, and that’s perfectly all right too. It’s the kind of novel where every one of the six main characters is flawed, but not too deeply, lovable, but not overly, destined for happiness in the end, but not without a struggle.

Which makes the book a bit on the predictable side. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s bad because it simply is, even if that sounds fairly tautological. Some things are bad by default. Only, it’s sometimes, in certain kinds of books, a peculiar and subtle pleasure to have your expectations fulfilled. All the time I spend reading Wodehouse and I know the general outcome of the book, expect the outcome, it’s just the getting there that’s the true pleasure. You know the moment you find out that Sara is pregnant that she and her husband will have a fight that will result in a miscarriage; you know that even though Elizabeth is terrified of her friends finding out the secret of her sexuality that they are going to accept her; you know Amber/Cuicatl is going to break out and be a success in music, even if her songs sound completely unlikely to ever be smash hits on any radio format.

And so the book is filled with men who are either too good to be true or bad enough to be real, parents who just don’t understand, small spats that always get made up in time for the conclusion, and sundry other pleasant, if completely contrived, elements. It’s not a bad way to spend your time once in a while; you can eat healthy salads, low-fat foods, follow the FDA food pyramid every day of the week, and still slip some ice cream or cheesecake in there. The Dirty Girls Social Club is a decent, store bought slice of cheesecake — and it was delicious.

The real revelation here was reader Isabel Keating. Too see her head shot on the back of the packaging is to wonder how she was chosen to read a novel about Latinas, but what a stunner. Keating throws out every Hispanic accent, combined with the Brooklyn of Usnavy’s upbringing, the softer South American purr of Elizabeth, the tightly restrained barely there accent of Amber, and Lauren’s southern-cracker raised Mexican. She ducked in an out of voice for each narration, then deftly jumped from one character to another during the heated scenes of dialogue at the yearly sucia meetings. It was a brilliant performance that utterly took this run of the mill chick lit novel to breathtaking heights.

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