Friday, October 15, 2010

The Lady Matador's Hotel by Cristina Garcia

Since it’s Friday, I’m going out of the box. Here is a review of a book chosen seemingly at random: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia.

I was driving somewhere one day listening to NPR and just happened to catch a book review. I’m never in my car when they review books. I don’t even remember any specifics of what the reviewer said, only that she loved The Lady Matador’s Hotel. I filed the information away in my head, but didn’t honestly think I’d ever read it. It sounded like an excellent book, but not really my cup of tea.

But then it popped up on a list of new releases that I was skimming. Someone was really trying to get my attention. I decided it was time to broaden my horizons a bit.

Every once in awhile, I like to read something that I-don’t-like-to-read. A thriller. A contemporary dysfunctional family story. Nonfiction. Books set in fictional Central American countries that are quasi-political but that ambitiously set out to say something meaningful about the human condition rather than just make a political statement. I think it’s important to vary my reading diet, just like it’s important to have lots of colors on my plate at dinnertime. So I closed my eyes to my huge pile of waiting historical fiction and YA books, and picked up this one.

Here is how the jacket cover describes it: National Book Award finalist Cristina Garcia delivers a fierce and gorgeous novel about the intertwining lives of the denizens of a luxurious hotel in an unnamed Central American capital in the midst of political turmoil. The lives of six men and women converge over the course of one week. There is a Japanese-Mexican-American matadora in town for a bullfighting competition; an ex-guerilla now working as a waitress in the hotel coffee shop; a Korean manufacturer with an underage mistress ensconced in the honeymoon suite; an international adoption lawyer of German descent; a colonel who committed atrocities during his country's long civil war; and a Cuban poet who has come with his American wife to adopt a local infant. With each day, their lives become further entangled, resulting in the unexpected- the clash of histories and the pull of revenge and desire. The Lady Matador’s Hotel is Cristina Garcia at her best. Her shimmering imagination evokes a lush and dangerous world and her profound compassion manifests itself in characters that come alive on the page. Garcia’s magnificent orchestration of politics, the intimacies of daily life, and the frailty of human nature unfolds in a powerful, ambitious, often comic, and unforgettable tale.
 
I include that summary because it’s the easiest way to give the flavor of what the book is about. It is a series of beautifully wrought character sketches, presenting these six people (and touching on their significant others) during a critical week in this fictional tension-filled world. The book relies much more on searching the characters’ backstories, motivations, and emotions than it does on plot. But it would be a mistake to imply that there is no plot movement. Each of these people has reached a point of personal crisis and things happen during the week to bring each crisis to a head. Some of the plot bits are interdependent. And yet, I didn’t exactly find the characters’ lives to be all that "entangled." They bumped into one another. There were a few business transactions. But the characters seemed very solitary and self-interested, except for the men lusting after the women (which is just another form of self-interest.) But I don’t say this as a negative. It was realistic in the setting, and I thought it impressive that the author managed to connect the stories as well as she did. I also thought it admirable the way the author presented the characters as allegorical figures: a disillusioned revolutionary, a free-spirit trapped by memories of her mother’s death, the sadistic military man who mourned the sons he’d driven away, etc. and yet, managed to make them not stereotypes, but real people with depth.

And so, my conclusion is: this is a quick entertaining read. It’s beautifully written. It’s a bit odd from a plot standpoint but really, the plot isn’t the point. Read it to enter the lives of these not-quite-real-but-sadder-than-real-because-of-what-they-represent characters and enjoy the little visions of beauty and hope that shine through.