Josie, a Manhattan psychotherapist, suddenly decides at a dinner party that she's going to leave her academic husband Anthony. Predictably, she finds the upheaval of preparing for divorce stressful - even if Anthony doesn't appear all that upset - and worries about what her new life will be like. So, when she receives a call from her university friend Raquel - a rock star caught up in a tabloid scandal - and Raquel invites her to come down to Mexico for an extended holiday, she agrees. In Mexico, the women attend folk music gigs, drink an amazing amount of tequilla and cocktails, and enjoy wandering around Mexico City. Josie falls for the charms of Felipe, a young artist and teacher in a semi-detached marriage, and becomes deeply distracted by their affair - so much so that she fails to notice that Raquel, who has no partner, is sinking further and further into depression - and into a longing for the drugs which caused her to have painful, expensive rehab treatment some years before. Will Josie notice what's going on in time?
Christensen is certainly a highly skilled writer. The descriptions of Mexico City are superb, and she also writes very well about the longterm loyalties and rivalries in female friendships. I enjoyed very much the comparisons drawn between the Mexicans' lifestyle, still linked to church and family, and the more tenuous ties of the New Yorkers. But for me the book had one serious problem - I couldn't really feel that much sympathy for either of the female characters. Josie was self-indulgent and petulant, and monumentally self-absorbed, while Raquel appeared to be one of those people who endlessly self-destruct, often for somewhat unclear reasons. I thought that Christensen would reveal her misery to be related to childhood trauma or to the loss of someone vital in her life - but it turned out to be just part of her celeb-obsessed, rather shallow lifestyle. The two women's essential shallowness meant that the tragedy of the novel had much less impact than it should have done, and that the ending was a damp squib. And Josie's adopted daughter was horribly annoying!
If I felt the novel had a message, it was that the old traditions of Mexico offered something more valid and healthy than the shallow celeb-obsessed New York culture. But - though I loved reading about Mexico as a place - this wasn't enough to make the book a particularly memorable read for me.
on 21 June 2009
A story of sisterhood and a loyal friendship, Kate Christensen's latest novel is an entertaining travelogue that stretches from Manhattan to Mexico City. After deciding to end her long and unfulfilled marriage, New York psychotherapist Josie is only to happy to accept from her best friend Raquel a sojourn in Mexico City, the trip perhaps a chance to get away from it all where both friends can hopefully reassess their priorities so far. Josie's husband, Anthony, a brilliant professor of political science, and once dynamic and passionate, remains strangely detached and accepting of Josie's decision, having not looked at her in ten years or expressed a bit of concern about the state of their marriage. Even Wendy, Josie's Chinese-born teenage daughter is emotionally distant and far from the intricate and warm daughter that she wishes she had. For the first time in ten years she feels "loose and wild and punchy." After a one night stand, Josie can do little but fight the urge to become an unencumbered traveler. Almost begging her friend to come down where they "can drink tequila, and go dancing and breathe pollution," the dismantling of Josie's marriage begins and she impulsively meets up with Raquel in Mexico City, the trip a chance for her to see outside the light, color life and freedom, "a bubble of excitement encased in an obdurate thrill of dread."
But Raquel has her own cross to bare. A rich and famous rock star with a new album on the way, hopefully her big comeback, Raquel's in deep trouble, caught up in a sleazy tabloid scandal involving a younger up-and-coming actor and his pregnant girlfriend. Raquel's capacity for joy and torment is what drives her. To Josie, her life is rich and interesting, but its also more complicated and painful than most, and the trip is as much a vehicle for Raquel to open her heart as it is for Josie to survive her crumbling life. Even as the friends begin to sample all of the delights of Mexico City, it is Josie who begins to release all her trapped-up angst and sensuality. To be sure, both women are intent to savor the perfection of the moment - the cathedrals, the artists digs, the gallery openings, the sunny crisp and cold mornings, the mescal, the wide avenues and the colorful cantinas, and of course their new friends Chuy, David, and the sexy Felipe, who Josie becomes attracted to with an easy desire. Josie is suddenly caught off guard, Felipe, a struggling young artist, totally flummoxed by just how much she really likes him.
Although this novel lacks much of the acerbic wit and caustic dialogue of Christensen's previous works, I found this tale quite touching. A tender friendship is cemented in the midst of profound life changes, and both women face inevitable consequences of true friendship while allowing each other the freedom to be themselves. While the other friend, Indriana is left back in Manhattan to shoulder her burdens, it is Josie's intuition that ultimately fails to rescue Raquel from her ultimate demons. Forster's novel A Passage to India gives this tale a symbolic backdrop, yet many of the burdens in this drama come from the women's sense of their new-found freedom and their reaction to the culture around them: a violent bullfight, Josie's flirtations with Felipe, revelations about Raquel's past, and the cultural differences between Mexico and North America. Unfortunately, Josie is mostly blindsided by her own needs and perhaps her "trouble" is that she doesn't see her friend in her hour of need. A girl who was once young and naive is now a wide awake and older woman and she realizes that she can't take refuge in blind ignorance anymore. Mike Leonard June 09.