Peel My Love Like an Onion: A Novel

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Overview

The seductive world of flamenco forms the backdrop for a classic tale of independence found, lost, and reclaimed. Like Bizet's legendary gypsy, Carmen "La Coja" (The Cripple) Santos is hilarious, passionate, triumphant, and mesmerizing.  A renowned flamenco dancer in Chicago despite the legacy of childhood polio, Carmen has long enjoyed an affair with Agustín, the married director of her troupe--a romance that's now growing stale. When she begins a new, passionate liaison with Manolo, Agustín's grandson...
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Overview

The seductive world of flamenco forms the backdrop for a classic tale of independence found, lost, and reclaimed. Like Bizet's legendary gypsy, Carmen "La Coja" (The Cripple) Santos is hilarious, passionate, triumphant, and mesmerizing.  A renowned flamenco dancer in Chicago despite the legacy of childhood polio, Carmen has long enjoyed an affair with Agustín, the married director of her troupe--a romance that's now growing stale. When she begins a new, passionate liaison with Manolo, Agustín's grandson and a dancer of natural genius, an angry rivalry is sparked. Carmen finally makes her way back to happiness in this funny, fiery story that's equal parts soap opera, tragicomedy, and rhapsody.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A fiery treatise on losing control in love.... Unforgettable."--Los Angeles Times

"If you have read Ana Castillo's work before, you will not be disappointed--. If you have not read Castillo before--where have you been?"--Houston Chronicle

"Reading Peel My Love Like an Onion reminds us of our own small but glorious victories. Ana Castillo has written her best novel to date."--Chicago Tribune

"The best of Ana Castillo: sassy, satiric, and stunningly lyrical."--Julia Alvarez

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Confirming her reputation as a talented writer, Castillo's (So Far from God) sardonic and seductive novel flowers at the exotic intersection of Chicago's flamenco, Gypsy and Chicano communities, where Carmen Santos, a defiant ex-flamenco dancer, struggles with the end of her career and the dissolution of a passionate love triangle. Left with a crippled leg after a childhood bout of polio, Carmen has always been defined by those around her--her parents, the school for the disabled she attended, her lovers and her public, who know her as "La Coja" (the cripple). It is only when she is dancing that she is sure of her identity, and as polio belatedly reasserts itself in her 40-year-old body, she feels she is losing the core of her existence. Then, like her legs, her two Gypsy lovers--Agust n, the married leader of her troupe, and Manolo, a fiery young dancer and Agust n's godson--abandon her. After 17 years as a dancer and a sensual being, Carmen is reduced to working in a sweatshop, at an airport pizza joint and as a corn-on-the-cob peddler. Most difficult of all, she is forced to move back into the family home, where her crotchety mother erodes her spirit. Dependent, stubborn, naive and heartbreakingly vulnerable, Carmen is a realistically flawed and lively survivor. In the person of her indomitable protagonist, Castillo's trademark feminist and border-crossing concerns acquire a new depth and complexity. Her writing has matured, and she keeps her own voice unobtrusive, stitching a seamless narrative. The pace here does not match the breakneck velocity of her previous works, nor does the novel strain for elaborate effects or call upon magic realism, yet its verve is unflinching. As careful an achievement as the patient peeling of an onion, this compulsively readable narrative should delight, and expand, Castillo's audience. Agent, Susan Bergholz. Author tour. (Sept.) FYI: Castillo's first and second novels, The Mixquiahuala Letters and Sapogonia, will be reissued in trade paperback by Anchor. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Carmen "La Coja" ("The Cripple") is a flamenco dancer despite her bad leg (she had polio as a child). This is not, however, a sentimental story about her triumph over tragedy, though in an inspired early passage we do see her struggle to learn to dance. The tale spun by Castillo (So Far from God) instead focuses on an older Carmen, past her prime and piecing herself together after a tangle of romances has unraveled. Peel her love like an onion, and you get layer after layer of confusion and betrayal: just as her long affair with August n, the double-dealing manager of her troupe, begins to stall, she falls passionately in love with August n's "godson," the talented and charismatic Manolo. Yes, Manolo loves her ("I will never be alone as long as I love you'), but that doesn't stop him from heading off to Spain with August n. Carmen feels pretty wind-whipped by his desertion but keeps standing--throughout, this tough little dancer never really hits the ground--and in the end she finds her voice, literally: she can't dance any more (except for herself), but she has a new recording contract. Lyrical and sharply told, though this tale has been heard before: of course Carmen will triumph, and what makes Manolo so special, anyway? For most fiction collections.--Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Castillo (Loverboys, 1996, etc.) covers familiar territory here—the trials and tribulations of passion, displacement, and cultural identity—but offers a pleasing combination of the light and cheeky with the lyrically romantic. Forty-year-old Carmen "La Coja" (the cripple) finds herself at the crossroads of life, though both paths seem to lead into the abyss. Once locally renowned as a flamenco dancer (despite her one polio-afflicted leg), Carmen now finds herself doing piece work in a Chicago sweatshop and trying to cope with both the devastating reemergence of her polio and the abandonment of her two lovers. Splicing the dismal present with her glorious past, Carmen tells of her 17-year relationship with Agustín, her dance troupe's dictatorial leader and her passionate one-year affair with his godson Manolo. The complicated triangle is alternately concerned with the heartstrings of love and the rigid customs of culture; both Agustín and Manolo are Romany and follow a strict code of conventions, including a ban on marriage outside of the tribe. Though Latina, Carmen is accepted as a fellow gypsy, which serves to further splinter her identity-doting daughter to a mother whose disappointment is all too palatable, disabled dancer, muse to one man and siren to another. When Carmen issues an ultimatum to Manolo—he'll be loyal to Agustín or to her?—the two men disappear, leaving Carmen for five long years yearning for the erotic memory of Manolo and the comfort of Agustín. Then both suddenly reappear in her life, with the same old demands and dilemmas. How she resolves her not-so-unpleasant quandary is a testament to her newly discovered senseof self as a singer and the old resilience that brought dance to an immovable leg. Observant and witty, if not altogether exceptional: Castillo creates a poignant portrait of passion lost and regained.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385496773
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/12/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 1,410,760
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Ana Castillo is the author of the novels The Mixquiahuala Letters, Sapogonia, and So Far From God; the story collection Loverboys; the critical study Massacre of the Dreamers; and several volumes of poetry. She has received an American Book Award, a Carl Sandburg Prize, and a Southwestern Booksellers Award for her work. She lives in Chicago.
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Read an Excerpt

Uno: I remember him dark.

I remember him dark. Or sometimes I remember it darkly. Yes, he was dark. He still is except that it is not easy to think of him as still existing, and everywhere my gaze turns he isn't there. What's the expression? Water, water everywhere . . . I was full--a vessel, a huge pre-Columbian pot, a copal-burning brassier, a funeral urn, a well, Jill's bucket up and down, a bruja's kettle simmering over the fire.

I was in love once. When you are in love no single metaphor is enough. No metaphor appears just a tad cliched. You are dizzy with desire. Yes, dizzy, virtual vertigo. Someone catch me, I'm falling in love. Nothing too serious, no ambulance will be necessary. Just a few days of bed rest is needed, I'm sure. With him.

Your very saliva tastes sweet in your own mouth, as a friend once stated, matter-of-fact-like. The science of being in love. She looked around the table, a group of middle-aged women having an evening out. We had all been in love at some time, hadn't we? Surely we knew about saliva and its emotionally triggered alchemy. You know what I mean? When you're in love even tap water tastes sweet. Your own saliva is sweet! she insisted in her Argentine accent. We looked around too, smiling a bit uncomfortably. We looked down at our fancy coffee and desserts. We were thankful when our waiter broke the silence and poured more coffee, dropped those little plastic containers of cream on the table. You know what I mean? Don't you? she asked again.

Maybe that's love in Buenos Aires.

But you must be really in love for the cliche to bounce back like a boomerang smack dab between the eyes with the ring of the gospel truth to your born-again ears.

Nevertheless it happens. Love that is riddled with cliches but has never happened to either of you quite that way before, therefore it cannot be a cliche for you. Love that happens abruptly, without warning like a summer shower. (You see what I mean about metaphors?) And yes, it is light and warm and sudden. The rainbow appears afterward on your power walk at the end of a long, stressed-out day, and the city is gray all over and your mother is in the hospital and your best friend's brother is fighting AIDS and you remember the night you slept with him when you were not in love and neither was he, a long time ago.

You put on your new cross-trainers assembled in a foreign land by women and children at slave wages so you try not to think of what you paid for them, and begin to walk the streets of your city at sunset. You say your city the way some Americans say this is their country. You never feel right saying that--my country. For some reason looking Mexican means you can't be American. And my cousins tell me, the ones who've gone to Mexico but who were born on this side like me, that over there they're definitely not Mexican. Because you were born on this side pocha is what you're called there, by your unkind relatives and strangers on the street and even waiters in restaurants when they overhear your whispered English and wince at your bad Spanish. Still, you try at least. You try like no one else on earth tries to be in two places at once. Being pocha means you try here and there, this way and that, and still you don't fit. Not here and not there.

But you can say this is my city because Chicago is big and small enough to be your city, to be anybody's city who wants it, anybody at all. Like Nelson Algren said right around the time you were born--Chicago . . . forever keeps two faces . . . One face for Go-Getters and one for Go-Get-It-Yourselfers. One for the good boy and one for the bad.

And I loved the good boy and the bad one and sometimes they were one and the same.

Once while I was in the ticket line at the airport in Frankfurt I watched a family for an hour or so that looked like it could have been his but I knew it wasn't. I never saw the man's face, just the heavy mat of Mediterranean hair, his wife, short, a little round around the middle, and their two babies. I tried to see his face to make sure it wasn't him. Not that it could have been him. He didn't have two babies. Does he now?

I was in Germany doing my last gig. Nothing sadder than a washed-up dancer. I was beyond sad. One day you turn thirty-six years old. The sum of your education is a high school diploma. No other skills but to dance as a gimp flamenco dancer, and your polio-inflicted condition is suddenly worsening. Nowhere to go but down, like Bizet must have felt at that age when the debut of his opera flopped and he went home and died of a broken heart.

My mother kept insisting I start cashiering again at someplace like El Burrito Grande. El Burrito Grande had closed down years ago and been replaced by a McDonald's. If she had once gotten up every morning at four-thirty to catch the bus to her job at the factory, my mother said, she couldn't see why I thought I was too good for everyday work. We needed the dryer repaired. She wanted a car. If we got a car, she said she would learn to drive. If I could make my living as a dancer, she could become a bus driver, she said.

But I had spent all my adult life living for the night. I didn't want anything to do with the day. And if this robbery of not only my livelihood but my very sense of being wasn't criminal enough, I had been left like a virgin bride at the altar. Left in a cowardly way, without notice. Left one Sunday without a Mass. My milkless breasts and my love that I had offered and given of so freely discarded like compost to be buried.

Still, I woke and went to bed with Manolo on my mind, except that when I thought of him since he left, his new name was Turd. As I had a bowl of cereal I cursed Turd. I cursed him when I had my afternoon espresso and cognac. Too many years of strong coffee and liquor with Manolio, Agustin, our friends, and bohemian lifestyle as my mother always called it, made some habits hard to break. One of them was loving passionately and another was being loved like the most beautiful woman in the world.

A friend suggested that I see a doctor, as if a doctor could give me a new leg, another spine, make me fifteen years younger. The doctor sent me to a therapist who then advised me to take a ceramics course at City College to channel all that creative fire burning inside me. Six months later I moved to the desert with my savings accumulated from tips, from gigs--at night clubs, community centers, convalescent homes and anywhere our ensemble could descend upon for a few bucks over half of my life--and I lived completely alone for two long years. I tried my hand as a potter and put on the veil. That's what the Spanish Catholic artistas I met there call it when they retreat to do their work. They take a vow of solitude if not silence and become novices. There's a lot of time for reflection while sweeping the tumbleweed and dust off the patio.

When Manolio went away and I stopped dancing I wanted to return to the earth, bathe in it, live inside the planet. But what did I know of the desert or clay? What did I know of the music of silences? I only knew dance, the sound of my heels on the hard wooden platform.

When the second winter of howling winds and sleeping alone was over I returned to the city of my birth. I wasn't cut out for living alone in the desert and came back to my natural urban habitat. I wasn't a potter either, just a dancer who couldn't dance anymore.

From the Hardcover edition.

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