three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-Happy FamiliesA prolific writer and former diplomat, Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes turns an unflinching eye on his native land with a nod to the opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

The Story: The Mexican families featured in these 16 short stories are anything but happy; instead, they are caught up in an agonizing dance of bitterness, despair, rebellion, and betrayal. "A Family Like Any Other," the opening story, sets the tone with its portrayal of a working-class family imploding under economic pressures as well as its inability to communicate. In "The Armed Family," a man reveals the location of his guerilla brother’s hideout to the authorities in a fit of sibling rivalry. A doting husband inadvertently destroys his marriage when he invites his wife’s family to visit in "A Cousin Without Charm." Free verse poems that highlight the dark side of life in contemporary Mexico for children, parents, spouses, homosexual lovers, and others connect the stories.
Random House. 332 pages. $26. ISBN: 1400066883

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"The most powerful stories focus on the often difficult relationship between father and son. One quarter of these stories deal with this father-son relationship; clearly Fuentes has something to say." Mark W. Barringer

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"These 16 stories continue to translate the universal complexities of national identity and desire into distinct Mexican variations on a well-known theme: the irreducible complexity of every family’s fundamental flaws. … What could be sensational melodrama in lesser hands becomes a series of beautiful meditations on the sometimes painful commitments we make to people by virtue of their blood." Geoffrey Bateman

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Fuentes enjoys turning things inside out, finding out how things work from within, and how their appearances delude us. … With grim humour and sharp intelligence, Fuentes has drawn 16 vignettes of Mexican family history that together form a literary kaleidoscope of human relationships." Alberto Manguel

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Gloomy as these tales are, Fuentes’ masterful ability to evoke the sounds, smells, sights and mythic history of his native land makes Happy Families resonate with grim verisimilitude." Robin Updike

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though often gratuitous and overwrought, these [free verse poems bridging the gaps between the stories] are some of the book’s most graphic and potent [passages]. … Like [José] Saramago, Fuentes proves there’s still pungent life in his fiction, even if the episodes don’t always cohere as tightly as they once did." Eric Liebetrau

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The absence of action and dialogue and the eerie lack of future produce an unendurable sense of claustrophobia. … It would be nearly intolerable to read his stories all at once; we can hardly draw breath in these locked and airless chambers." Roxana Robinson

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"Perhaps what’s most troubling about the new book is that we are so often made aware of what can only be a gap between intention and execution, between Fuentes’s apparent desire to inspire empathy for his characters and the way we’re made to feel contempt and even repulsion for these inadequate fathers, aging wives, oppressed peasants and philandering husbands, for the decrepitude of the old and the impotence of the helpless. Too often, the construction of the plots and the rendering of the characters seem simply inattentive or lazy, and there are hints of the telenovela, though not, it would seem, deliberate ones." Francine Prose

Critical Summary

Readers familiar with distinguished novelist Carlos Fuentes (The Eagle’s Throne, 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2006; This I Believe, 4 of 5 Stars Selection May/June 2005) will recognize elements from his previous works: his formidable political outrage; his evocative language; and his fluid narrative style that incorporates stream-of-consciousness monologues, shifting perspectives, and irregular punctuation. Despite his penchant for experimental styles, critics considered Happy Families Fuentes’ most accessible work to date. Fuentes envisions a violent and pitiless dystopia where "being a man doesn’t mean not being a child anymore but beginning to be a criminal"—a world containing no consolation or possibility of redemption for its inhabitants. Some critics were disturbed by these stories’ unremitting misery; the reviewer for the New York Times Book Review deemed them implausible and, on the whole, unsuccessful. Most critics, however, praised this graphic, unsettling, and masterfully constructed collection.