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Spark has written a richly imaginative and wildly sensual novel, the enchanting story of a San Juan baker, his three daughters, and the woman who changes their lives forever. Sandrofo, the baker, and his daughters came to the island from America ten years before to start and new life, and Maria Elena Pico threatens the family's carefully constructed identity.
Of the four pale people, the man and the three small girls walking down the blue street in the center of the pastel city, there is only one person who does not look dazed, only one person who is really on the street, saying, Yes, here we have blue bricks. Here, houses painted like candy. It is not the adult in the group. He sees, but he sees the past. And of the girls, one sees the future, and one simply sees herself, piously resolving not to finger the mosquito bites clustered at her wrist. It is Tata—who has no desire to be grown up or perfect—who is content to be here, herself, a five-year-old child on an adventure.
"It's hot out," she says, once, loudly in English, but no one responds, not her father and not her sisters, Beatriz and Melone. Miffed, Tata glares at her family. She is used to a starring role in the adventure that is her life, but it's too warm to insist that eveyrone pay attention to her. She shrugs once and reluctantly allows herself to become, with her sisters, part of a different story, her father's story. There is no mother's story, no immediately aparent one, as these children have been half-orphaned since birth. Of the three girls, two are aware that they are traveling with a man who has lost his wife.
Years later, when they account for their presence on the island—to themselves and to strangers—each of them, for her own reasons, will forget boat travel, disremember the initial hotels, the long week in the filthy rooming house. They will recall only the walk down this road, the absolute security they feel in having a destination. And they will all think of themselves not as they are now...noting first the stores, then the gaped mouths of various windows and the fried turnovers and lemonades being dispensed form curbside stands...but as they must appear to the man at the end of the street. They have all noticed him, all chosen not to mention him. Yet they are moving steadily toward him as if he is, when considered as destination not person, inevitable. He is crouched the way only crazy people couch, down low but peering up and rocking from the pads to the heels of his feet. No intention to rest—that much is clear—by standing up or sitting down. From the low vantage point of this man, the family, pale and stiff, as they are, and set, as they are, against the blue of the sky, seem to be figures on a slowly advancing frieze. So the man—his name is Angelo—says, as if in response to their approach, "You must remember this. A kiss is still a kiss." It appears he means absolutely nothing by this. He talks in burps, the funny, Jew's harp sound of someone who has had his voice box ripped from his throat.
The crouched man isn't the only one observing the advancing family. There are eyes everywhere...behind the plaza statue, in dark doorways, coffee shops, balconies, garbage piles...the whole obvious array of hiding places as the three girls and their father make their way through the street. The stares are natural...and not just because the girls—Tata, Melone, and Beatriz—match each other in all the crucial areas: height and weight, color of eye and hair, turn of the foot, set of the hip. It's their paleness. Though the father has Spanish blood, they are all but gringos, and they will learn soon enough to be ashamed of the privilege implied, even here, on this most democratic of islands.
The father—he goes by Sandrofo—is tall and slim. Handsome, save for the way his entire face slopes back into his forehead, making his head look a bit like something the eyes had to climb in order to rest in their favorite place, the sockets. Once there, one of the eyes, the left one, turns slightly inward; the other stares resolutely forward. The uneven gaze makes the father appear indecisive, as if the problem her eis one of character: this is a man unable to commit to anything as defining as crossed eyes.
In one hand, he holds a piece of cardboard, which he brushes against the stubble of his cheek, as if amused to find that it makes such a distinct sound. So he is an adult after all, and this despite the way he moves, like a boy trying to restrain himself from running mountains, swimming channels, exhausting himself for the pure joy of exhausting himself. The free hand dangles at his side. Occasionally, he uses it to pat the curly brown hair of one of his daughters' heads.
When he is within shouting distance of the crouching man, Sanfrodo says, "Perdoneme." The man is not a likely person to ask for directions, but Sandrofo is hot and tired, and since it is siesta, there is really no one else on the street. He calls again, "Perdoneme."
There is no response; the man is, for the moment, absorbed. Indeed, as the family draws close, he no longer seems to see them, though his eyes are, more or less, on them. A folded newspaper lies at his toes, and he is wearing gray pants, brown shoes, a green and blue sweater worn thin with age. The whole arrangement is topped by a blue and red checked sport coat. The outfit is wrong in every way it could be. Other men on the street are dressed in short-sleeved cotton shirts. The girls wear clothes the color of after-dinner mints. They shuffle their sandaled feet. Ordinarily, the father would say, "Don't stare," to the girls, because there is something about the boxiness of the fit of the man's sweater—it looks as if the man might have a cage around his torso—coupled with the clear scrawniness of the legs that suggest there is a substantial deformity here. But whether from exhaustion or confusion or simple failure to concentrate, the four arrive at the man's feet and stop to watch him. They gaze at his puckery, red face as he removes a piece of paper from his right interior pocket, studies it and then folds it into his left jacket pocket, full as it is with an assortment of papers. They watch as he reshuffles a piece of paper from his pants pocket into his other interior coat pocket, also thick with folded material. He removes a stub of a pencil and a knife, puts the knife back, stores the pencil away, takes out a longer pencil, reaches in to retrieve the stub, only to toss it away. Then he takes out his knife and cuts the wood on the street. Tata pulls at her father's hand, and he motions her to be silent till the man picks up his paper and starts to read, the lead of his pencil poised, it seems, to make editorial comments.
Posted January 27, 2000
This book was such a disappointment. It took elements that could have been interesting, the triplets, the bakery, and turned them into pedestrian, confused plot devices. It seemed to me like a first draft; the structure was sloppy and the writing was poor, to put it nicely. When there are so many books out there that I want to read, I'm sorry I wasted my time and money on this one.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.