Way back in 1999, the Los Angeles Times ran a review that skewered a comedian and his tired, insulting act. I remember sitting up and taking notice of the writer, thinking to myself, “Self, this writer, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, has a lot of power in her pen, I wonder what kind of fiction she’d write if she ever gets a chance to cut loose?”
In the course of a handful of novels, the writer demonstrated she has a lot going for her. She aligned her work with a popular strategy other writers had pursued to great success, following multiple characters. It worked. Valdes-Rodriguez enjoyed popular success in her Sister Sucias novels, The Dirty Girls Social Club and less so with Dirty Girls On Top, advancing with superb work in Make Him Look Good. In her latest novel, The Husband Habit, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez sows fertile new ground. She’s freed herself of her inner Mary McCarthy and allows one character to take over the novel. And I’m glad she has. With a reservation.
Although readers can depend on a Valdes-Rodriguez novel to bring smiles that brighten even a dismal day, a mélange of characters doesn’t allow much opportunity for a woman to stand on her own feet and show the world of what she’s capable. Ditto the writer, in as much as the group tactic pressures the writer to leave deserving characters ill-developed while sending others into extreme behaviors to wrap up an errant plot.
Thus, shaking off The Group mentality frees the writer to focus upon a singular character, a continuous narrative, and to write the heck out of a novel to the benefit of both the reader and author. This is what The Husband Habit reaps, a better developed central character around whom all the characters and action pivots, and some interesting writing.
Vanessa Duran exercises culinary genius in a fancy Alburquerque restaurant. Clever with quick repartée, she has a solid sense of herself, but refuses to take her own side. The big-name chef she works for steals credit for Vanessa’s creativity. Big sister Larissa bosses Vanessa around as if the latter were not a fully grown adult woman. And Vanessa submits like a good little sister. The worst part of Vanessa’s problem is being gulled by married men, hence the title.
Valdes-Rodriguez opens the novel with a deliciously funny scene. Vanessa, the unknowing “other woman” has flown cross-country to tryst with an internet romance. The vato has money, charm, fancy clothes and an impressive bottle of wine. And a wife with son, who follow from the airport to the tony hotel. Sancha Vanessa and fulano learn they’ve been followed when the irate wife rams her own SUV into the lying philanderer’s fancy car. Again and again and again the betrayed wife slams her vehicle into the Mercedes until cops haul her away. The mortified Vanessa flees to the registration desk and a sympathetic clerk. Hilarity surrounded by the woman’s tragedy.
Vanessa lands back home and resumes a courtship with Bryan, a pastry chef. Another fiasco. This pendejo not only is married with a son, his wife has found out about the affair and is hospitalized after attempting suicide. In the space of the first 40 pages of the novel Vanessa takes a pair of you-didn’t-tell-me-you’re-married gut punches from men she was dating. Sadly, Vanessa’s feeling of betrayal is so profound she blames the wife, telling Vanessa’s good friend Hazel that Bryan is “a lying sack of crap with a depressive and unstable wife.”
Older sister Larissa enjoys a successful academic career. In fact, she’s about to depart for a research jaunt to Morocco. This leaves Vanessa in charge of their aging, bickering, alcoholic parents. Vanessa rightfully senses a new nightmare in the offering. Larissa senses danger in the hunky next door neighbor and extracts a promise from little sister to lay off men for a few months. No rebound dating, especially with the neighbor. Vanessa, overwhelmed at the prospect of spending quality time with her mother and father, meekly agrees.
Then she lays eyes on the neighbor. Vanessa cannot keep her eyes off the he-man’s body. He-man cannot keep his eyes off Vanessa’s legs. But Vanessa holds true to her promise, hence the plot thickens as she resists her feral urges and keeps the neighbor at arm’s distance. Slowly, however, he wears her down with Vanessa's help. He cooks. He knows literature. He finds ways to surprise her with music, knowledge, kindness.
Paul is an interesting man in numerous ways, with a major drawback. He’s military and neither Vanessa nor Larissa want anything to do with this type of person. But Paul is not a tipo. He is a pilot recently returned from Iraq, wounded--Post-Traumatic Stress wounded. He’s fallen hard for Vanessa’s beauty, skill, sincerity. Vanessa’s anti-military blindness deepens his wounds, as if his life choices were entirely of his doing. They’re not, if only Vanessa will provide him an opportunity to explain.
Paul, it develops, has turned against the war. He’s of Vanessa’s opinion, of the futility and mindlessness of an unprovoked invasion. For Vanessa, it’s a theory. For Paul, the knowledge of what he has done in prosecuting the war is one long, sustained gut punch. Bridging the gap between Vanessa’s attitude and Paul’s remorse sends the novel roiling into political territory that adds interest and enlarges the capacity of chica lit to give something beyond a mere beach read. Not that this novel is not a lot of fun. It is.
Valdes-Rodriguez’ antiwar attitudes are not a reason to endorse The Husband Habit, but that hasn’t stopped a cabal of conservative assholes from raking the book over the Amazon coals. The day I looked, Amazon's featured negative review slices and dices at the novel’s strengths with unmeasured sophistry and mean spiritedness. It’s interesting to note the 1- and 2-star (bad) reviews mostly come from anonymous critics who sign with “handles”, whereas 5- and 4-star (great) reviewers generally have the honest courtesy to sign a real-sounding name.
Sophisticated readers who aren’t grinding axes will find excellent writing gives The Husband Habit a stature several steps above typical chica lit titles. This is one of the rewards of Valdes-Rodriguez shedding the group novel in favor of developing a single relationship for a singular character. Certainly there’s ample clowning around and clownish moments in her characters. But the characters can be deadly serious and self-disclosing in disarming ways, as when Paul talks about his hatred for hunting the animals on his family’s ranch:
I liked animals, Vanessa. Alwavs have. I still do. I love 'em. I'll never forget it. I was a little kid, and he took me out here, and he downed a doe, and took me with him to get it. She wasn't dead yet, just there bleeding, you know? She looked right at me. And her baby, that fawn, was standing there, not knowing where to go or what to do. I was sickened by it. I hated it, but you know how it is. You have to suck it up, when you're a boy, right? You gotta play soldiers and cowboys and Indians, you gotta like to shoot stuff, and you gotta play sports, right, or you're not a real boy. And my dad wanted me to learn to hunt, to do this thing that his dad taught him, and that his dad's dad had taught his dad, and so that's what it was like. Like my legacy, and I hated every minute of it, but when you're a kid you don't have the guts or the power to stand up to your dad about something like that, and you think there's something wrong with you.
Lucky Vanessa. True to the template of chica lit, the would-be lover has money. Rich is so much nicer than poor. And, because Vanessa is the center of her novel, Valdes-Rodriguez gets opportunities to paint a complex woman, not the foolish girl who bounces from bed to bed. As in the excursion Vanessa’s thoughts take when driving the open road and her thoughts wander to roadkill:
Brutality and grace, locked in an endless dance. This is how it works, a vile vein woven through all this beauty, life and death tangled together and dependent as inhale to exhale, as sleep to waking, when you are brave enough to look closely and without blinking. Roadkill. Rabbits, coyotes, dogs. Do they never clean the sides of Interstate 25, the road crews? Or do things die here with such frequency that regular removal is not enough to hide the truth of the dance between the modern and the ancient? It wounds her, these dead things. Maybe it was the eyes of that one dog, still open, surprised at the blow, the head disembodied and the rest of the animal spread like paste across the roadway.
What an interesting grammatical paragraph, the appositions. The Husband Habit offers numerous instances where the writer has her way with language. Rich in metaphor, landscape, spiteful character asides, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez has achieved a milestone in her career with this masterly crafted work. And true to her title, Vanessa's in for a huge surprise from Paul she did not see coming, and readers will chortle about. Be prepared to suspend disbelief in that final plot twist.
My one reservation is a quibble with the character’s seeming helplessness, though this more is wrought of the chica lit template, less from the writer’s skill. I’d like so much to observe a strong, powerful woman with guts and judgment. Vanessa’s pal, Hazel, for instance, takes no caca from domineering men. Paul’s mother, like sister Larissa, is an accomplished academic, I bet they kick ass in a man’s world no holds barred. I hope to read such a character in an upcoming novel. The author surely is moving in that direction. The cutesy stuff of comedy makes for fun reading, and that’s its own reward. I think back to the controlled anger and unbridled contempt 1999's Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez unleashed on that clueless sap. He got what he deserved. I think some future Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez character is out there, waiting to get what she deserves, her own novel and powerful self-reliant independent ethos. It's what we deserve.
I am so honored to have been a part of La Bloga and among such incredible writers. At this point, however, I am juggling parenthood, a full-time job and three novels in various stages of completion so before my agent gives up on me I figured I’d better put my focus on finishing them. Thank you so much my fellow blogueros and la bloga readers, I’m certain that my Sunday spot is in exceptional hands. I’ll be back to visit, you can count on it. ¡Gracias por todo!