There's nothing quite like a funeral to set a novelist's wheels in motion: All those characters forced into one place, all those chances to explore the performative nature of family relationships, all those lies and secrets to expose, all of our mortality to contemplate. In his fifth novel,
The House of Broken Angels, the pleasure is in watching Luis Alberto Urrea submit to every last opportunity the setup offers -- it's a big-hearted family epic that radiates with the joy of telling stories, undercut by the knowledge that the story eventually ends. Graham Swift knew it in Last Orders. García Márquez knew it in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Faulkner knew it in As I Lay Dying. Miguel Angel de la Cruz, the patriarch at the center of Urrea's story, is facing death twice in two days. The novel is set during the funeral for his mother and his seventieth birthday party the day after, events that he privately considers his farewell; he's been diagnosed with cancer and has weeks to live. So he savors his San Diego home becoming a gathering spot for his large extended family -- three siblings and many in-laws and grandkids who together form of cross-section of the American experience. His estranged son, Yndio, is a "non-cisgendered, non-heteronormative cultural liberation warrior." His half brother Gabriel, aka Little Angel, is an English professor in Seattle, studying his Mexican heritage from an academic remove. His son Lalo is an Iraq War vet mourning the death of another son, Braulio, to gang violence. All this is the legacy of Big Angel successfully bringing his wife across the Mexican border decades before, "when it became obvious that only hunger and dirt and rats and evil police waited for them in the poorest of the colonias where they could afford to live." But while Broken Angels is broadly a novel about the Mexican-American experience, that conceit breaks apart like a pointillist painting. At every turn Urrea is striving to unsettle assumptions about what "Mexican-American experience means" -- simple summaries are for Donald Trump and lesser stand-up comics. Big Angel, he writes, was "so famous for punctuality that the Americans at work used to call him 'the German.' Very funny, he thought. As if a Mexican couldn't be punctual. As if Vicente Fox was late to things, cabrones." The gringo culture that spins such stereotypes is mostly off to the side in the novel -- a snippet of raw-throated talk-radio chatter, a passing insult in a supermarket aisle. But Big Angel's enclave is plenty diverse in itself. Nearly all of the characters have multiple nicknames (Little Angel is "the Assimilator," Lalo is "Hungry Man") as if to highlight their complex and multitude-containing status, the way a person changes depending on who's doing the looking. Urrea carries all of this lightly, though, even sentimentally. The vibe of the novel isn't an elegy for the end of a clan that's lost its sense of identity but a tribute to a family that has acquired the freedom to make multiple identities for itself. "Little Angel thought it was all turning into an end-of-semester project for his multicultural studies course," Urrea writes. The line is funny because it's true: the party is filled with Dreamers, gangbangers, grandmas, and women "as magnificent as a velvet painting of an Aztec goddess in a taco shop." And the line is serious because Little Angel has missed the point -- a family is not a petri dish for pat notions about diversity. Urrea is consistently working through this tension throughout the book, keeping the tone upbeat while acknowledging the storm clouds in his characters' stories, sometimes decades worth of them. His strategies for lightening the mood can be shameless in their contrivance. A nephew of Big Angel sings in a black-metal band called Hispanic Panic and tourettically spouts headbanger mottos, while Little Angel's ivory-tower seriousness is undone by his lust for a sister- in-law. And Big Angel maintains a notebook in which he lists the things he's grateful for, moments where the strings swell ever- louder: "wildflowers after rain," "a day without pain," "a kiss from my brother." But another strategy Urrea uses is to not stay in one place too long: The silly scenes give way to the richly comic ones, the sentimental ones to the moments of somber pathos. And he's rightly confident that the mix of storytelling forms will cohere. The House of Broken Angels isn't exactly plotless -- it recalls Don DeLillo's quip that all plots tend toward death. But Urrea wants to assert a status, not a trajectory. Big Angel is an Everyman, "a rolling laugh riot . . . arbiter of bad jokes, spiritual insight, ice cream money, and shelter when they were bounced out of their houses or were let out of jail or rehab or needed to come in off the streets at midnight." And likewise, this Mexican-American novel is a retort to what such a novel ought to be. For a novel about death, there's a lot of life in it. Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who’s spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Washington City Paper, and many other publications. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle.
Reviewer: Mark Athitakis
The Barnes & Noble Review
…sorrowful and funny…highly entertaining…Dispelling the notion held by some Americans that all Mexicans have just crossed the border, Urrea creates a rambunctious de La Cruz family that lives in San Diego and "has been around here since before your grandparents were even born." Urrea is intent on both celebrating the particularities of Mexican-American life and attacking the anti-Mexican racism that has been a part of American culture ever since the United States conquered quite a bit of Mexico…The quips and jokes come fast through a poignant novel that is very much about time itself, especially the passing of time and the inevitability of death…Anger and sorrow are one pair of emotions that keeps surfacing throughout
The House of Broken Angels. So do love and pain, joy and resentment, hatred and reconciliation, backstabbing and tenderness. All complicated, all compelling in Urrea's powerful rendering of a Mexican-American family that is also an American family. And what is Urrea's novel but a Mexican-American novel that is also an American novel? American in the broadest possible sense, from the United States of America, north of the border, to Mexico and by implication all of the other countries south of the border that are also American.
The New York Times Book Review - Viet Thanh Nguyen
In Urrea’s exuberant new novel of Mexican-American life, 70-year-old patriarch Big Angel de la Cruz is dying, and he wants to have one last birthday blowout. Unfortunately, his 100-year-old mother, America, dies the week of his party, so funeral and birthday are celebrated one day apart. The entire contentious, riotous de la Cruz clan descends on San Diego for the events—“High rollers and college students, prison veternaos and welfare mothers, happy kids and sad old-timers and pinches gringos and all available relatives.” Not to mention figurative ghosts of the departed and an unexpected guest with a gun. Taking place over the course of two days, with time out for an extended flashback to Big Angel’s journey from La Paz to San Diego in the 1960s, the narrative follows Big Angel and his extended familia as they air old grievances, initiate new romances, and try to put their relationships in perspective. Of the large cast, standouts include Perla, Big Angel’s wife, the object of his undimmed affection; Little Angel, his half-Anglo half-brother, who strains to remain aloof; and Lalo, his son, trailing a lifetime of bad decisions. Urrea (The Hummingbird’s Daughter) has written a vital, vibrant book about the immigrant experience that is a messy celebration of life’s common joys and sorrows. Agent: Sandra Dijkstra, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. (Mar.)
A family saga that asks what it means to be American.Urrea (The Water Museum, 2015, etc.) tells the story of Miguel Angel de la Cruz, or Big Angel, who must bury his mother as he himself is dying. Before his death, though, he means to celebrate one last birthday. "He wanted a birthday, pues. A last birthday," Angel's sister explains, and from that simple statement, the entire book unfolds. Urrea is an accomplished writer of fiction and nonfiction; his novel The Hummingbird's Daughter was inspired by his great-aunt, the Mexican mystic Teresita Urrea, and The Devils' Highway: A True Story, which recounts a catastrophic border crossing, was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Here, he returns to his family as source, modeling Big Angel, or at least his circumstance, on his oldest brother, who died a month after their mother's funeral. The result is a novel that is knowing and intimate, funny and tragic at once. The de la Cruzes are a big clan, messy and complex. The members have competing agendas, secrets, but at the same time, all share a commitment to family. "All we do, mija," Big Angel tells his daughter, "is love. Love is the answer. Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death." It's impossible to read that line (or, for that matter, this novel) without reflecting on the current American moment, in which Mexican-American families such as the de la Cruzes are often vilified. But if Urrea's novel is anything, it is an American tale. It is a celebration, although Urrea is no sentimentalist; he knows the territory in which his narrative unfolds. There is tragedy here and danger; these are real people, living in the real world. Still, even when that world intrudes, it only heightens the strength, the resilience, of the family. "He thought he was still alive to make his amends," Urrea writes of Big Angel. "He thought he was alive to try one last hour to unite his family. But now he knew…he was alive to save his boy's life. His youngest son."Even in death, Urrea shows, we never lose our connection to one another, which is the point of this deft and moving book.
"Boisterous . . . Fun . . . Although underscored by tragedy and strife, this novel is
a story of hope and love-for all broken angels." Yvette Benavides, San Antonio Express-News " The House of Broken Angels will appeal to anybody...A tender, sprawling, funny, violent family saga." David Steinberg, Albuquerque Journal "Two paragraph is and I was unabashedly in love with Luis Alberto Urrea's masterful and richly textured new novel, The House of Broken Angel, about this family that manages to be both extraordinary and completely ordinary...Few characters are as alive as Big Angel, and few stories have resonated with me as much as this one." Ashley Riggleston, The Free Lance-Star " Luis Alberto Urrea has crafted a story that is teeming with family love, secrets, jealousies, alliances, and surprises that make it burst with life on every page. He uses a large cast of characters to portray the breadth of the de La Cruz clan and also make them universal. Change the names, locations, language, and in-jokes, and they could be Italian, Jewish, Irish, or any other group of immigrants that has struggled to combine elements of their original home with their new one . . . The House of Broken Angels can be a multigenerational, multinational dwelling anywhere. Get a copy for your house." Dale Singer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch "Each of the De la Cruzes is in some way a performer who shows extraordinary courage and vulnerability...Big Angel is grateful for his wife, for his family, and for the power of memory, and what an incredible story he tells... The House of Broken Angels is full of life and spirit and joy. At is heart this is a novel about being alive." Luba Sawczyn, Burlington Times-News "A beautiful and heartbreaking family story." HelloGiggles "A big-hearted family epic that radiates with the joy of telling stories...The vibe of the novel isn't an elegy for the end of a clan that's lost its sense of identity, but a tribute to a family that has acquired the freedom to make multiple identities for itself...For a novel about death, there's a lot of life in it." Mark Athitakis, Barnes & Noble Book Review "This, the most personal book by the great American novelist Luis Alberto Urrea, is one of the most vivid and engrossing family epics of the last twenty years." Dave Eggers, National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author of The Circle "Luis Urrea is a mythmaker with the heart of a poet. He is that paradox, a gentle, kind writer who can hurt you deeply with honesty and beauty. I'm glad we have him." Neil Gaiman, New York Times bestselling author of The Ocean at the End of the Lane " The House of Broken Angels has everything we demand of a great novelsweep, ambition, generosity, myth, intimacy, and, above all, humanity. Luis Alberto Urrea just gets better and better." Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Everybody's Fool "Luis Alberto Urrea is a master storyteller, and he delivers a masterwork with The House of Broken Angels. Stories spin on stories. There are lives intimately depicted and fully realized; losses redeemed by love; a dazzling display of narrative fireworks, each little scene a gem; and larger-than-life characters across two borders who cross all borders and become ours. We enter this house of broken angels, and through the magical power of Urrea's writing, we become healed and whole. And we laugh and tear up and shake our heads in wonder all the way to the ending of a book we don't want to end. Urrea delivers on every page. ¡Dios santo! What a storyteller! Bless his capacious heart!" Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents "Dizzying...Urrea writes in exhilarating but controlled slashes, wielding a machete that cuts like a scalpel. Every page comes alive with scent, taste, and, perhaps most lovingly, touch... The House of Broken Angels is about a quintessentially American family, a family that came north looking for heaven but found that 'heaven was a blueprint.' But it's also about what it means to look back on a life and, with total honesty, take stock." Omar El Akkad, Bookpage "Exuberant...Urrea has written a vital, vibrant book about the immigrant experience that is a messy celebration of life's common joys and sorrows." Publishers Weekly "A family saga that asks what it means to be American . . . The novel is knowing and intimate, funny and tragic at once. The de la Cruzes are a big clan, messy and complex. The members have competing agendas and secrets, but at the same time, all share a commitment to family. 'All we do, mija,' Big Angel tells his daughter, 'is love. Love is the answer. Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death.' It's impossible to read that line (or, for that matter, this novel) without reflecting on the current American moment, in which Mexican American families such as the de la Cruzes are often vilified. But if Urrea's novel is anything, it is an American tale. It is a celebration, although Urrea is no sentimentalist; he knows the territory in which his narrative unfolds. There is tragedy here and danger; these are real people, living in the real world. Still, even when that world intrudes, it only heightens the strength, the resilience, of the family . . . Even in death,." Urrea shows, we never lose our connection to one another, which is the point of this deft and moving book Kirkus Reviews (starred review) "A warmly hilarious novel. . . . Rollicking chaos, masterful storytelling and deep affection for its countless characters." Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times "Luis Alberto Urrea is one of America's foremost chroniclers of the messy, swirling, often embarrassing chaos that we politely call 'family.'...The House of Broken Angels [is] a dizzying, powerful book that wraps its arms around all the emotion and chaos of a large family." Kirkus "Urrea once again captures the anxieties and joys of a family balanced on the borders between generations, El Norte and Mexico, and life and death. A quintessentially American story." Booklist "Urrea masterfully crafts a portrait of a sprawling family living in different worlds...His newest is an honest and moving portrayal of how families fall apart and come together during difficult times." Stephanie Sendaula, Library Journal "Richly rendered and emotionally satisfying...Urrea's immense literary imagination never ceases to work wonders. In The House of Broken Angels, his style of magical realism creates an unforgettable alchemy, transforming the struggles of a multigenerational Latinx family into a moving mythos of kinship...Extraordinary." Shelf Awareness
Despite the title, the Angels here are more damaged than broken, with even a promise of salvation—more than less—by title's end. Narrated by Urrea (The Water Museum), who has magnificently recorded most of his audio adaptations, this House comes to life across borders, generations, genders, and ages. The matriarch of the sprawling de la Cruz family is dead just as her eldest son, Miguel Angel—known as "Big Angel"—is about to celebrate a farewell birthday blowout before he succumbs to terminal cancer. Over the funeral/party double-header weekend, the extended clan gather in San Diego to eulogize and revel in the decades spent as family and strangers, as loved ones and pariahs. Amidst siblings, children, in-laws, nieces, nephews, spouses, and exes arrives Big Angel's half-brother, Seattle English professor Gabriel Angel. Armed with a notebook to keep track of who's who, Little Angel will finally figure out his rightful place. VERDICT Urrea's outstanding ability to individualize his extensive cast adds yet another enhancing layer to his already spectacular novel. ["An honest and moving portrayal of how families fall apart and come together during difficult times": LJ 2/1/18 review of the Little, Brown hc.]—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC