- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006


By Charlotte Forbes

Arcade Publishing, $24, 227 pages


This book not only lives up to its title, it also lives up to its subtitle, “a novel in stories.” There are 16 of them, and they all revolve around or feature Ayela Linde, a beautiful, headstrong and complicated girl who grows, over the 70 years of the sequential narrative, into an even more beautiful, headstrong and complicated woman.

When we first meet her, in a story called “Parasols,” she is still Ayela Garzon, daughter of Felidia Garzon, dressmaker, if that’s not too grand a term, to the ladies of the tiny town of Santa Rosalia, just north of the Rio Grande. It’s 1934, and Ayela and her friend Druanne are both 17, and the good work Ayela performs is not one of which most mothers would approve: Ayela teaches Druanne, by her flamboyant example, to be “both hard and easy with men.”

As she and Ayela pass a group of them, Druanne notices, “When they couldn’t take their eyes off you, your rose-colored summer dress, your black Mexican hair, we crossed the street and walked past them as if they didn’t exist. You put your arm around me and whispered in my ear something I didn’t hear. I laughed because you laughed. Together we laughed so hard we nearly fell down trying to get through the door to the pool hall.”

Later in the night, Druanne makes a telling observation: “… you and Gabriel Frank were in the corner, drinking and kissing and swaying with your bodies pressed together. Even so, I saw it in your eyes: there was a distance between you that Gabriel Frank could do nothing about.” Charlotte Forbes does many things well, but it’s her ability to create those kinds of telling human moments that impressed me most.

In the next story, “Flowers at Your Grave,” the reader and Ayela meet Frederick Linde, a young, handsome, idealistic Bostonian who thinks he’s passing through Santa Rosalia. By the end of the book, 14 stories later, Ayela, his widow, is mourning his passing, not his passing through. He, too, performs good works, but he’s more inclined toward the traditional: a new arts center for the town, a loan to a sick neighbor. Ayela’s good works are more ethereal, magical almost, if no less good.

Not all the stories are told by the central character. Druanne narrates the first one, and several tales later, in “The Pork Butcher and the Rich Man’s Wife,” it’s one of the many townsmen Ayela had spurned before Frederick arrived in the little town. But one night long ago she had, with supreme indifference and almost anger, laid down with him, and it’s the gift he remembers ever after. In another story, she helps the altar guild and then a travel agent. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it, just pieces of the mosaic of a charmed and charming, albeit most enigmatic, life.

Charlotte Forbes, who in 1999 was an O’Henry Prize winner (for her short story “Sign”) in a volume that also contained the work of such excellent writers as Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon, and T. Coraghessan Boyle, is a painter in words, but a painter who sends the reader a message in every story, even if it’s as simple a message as: Hey, none of us are that easy to figure out.

In “The Gift of Softened Eyes,” Ayela, by this point almost 50, is described by her new daughter-in-law as she sees her for the first time: “What hour can it be in your life when you have both the look of a lost young woman and, with the slight turn of a head, a worn-out drone, this half-breed who could grab a hen under her arm and twist its neck without a thought as easily as she could lead a titled gentleman in a waltz …”

Perhaps the greatest of Ayela’s gifts is the one she gives Frederick Linde by not running away from him, despite her strong inclination to do so. They marry, produce three sons, but it’s hardly a settled existence. In “A Cow in the Rain,” they have a terrible argument, and an omniscient narrator tells us, “The seeds of their first and enduring attraction grated on them: her beauty, his wealth, her abrupt ways, his mortal kindness, her terrible need, her high Mayan cheek-bones, his pipe tobacco, her occasional artistry, his sense of duty, his long slender fingers, her unreasonableness, his coming to this town on the edge of Mexico, her inability to leave it.”

“The Good Works of Ayela Linde” is filled with passages like that, passages that show so much more than they tell. With each story, the characters grow in subtle complexity, like — excuse the pedestrian analogy — a Polaroid picture developing before your eyes. I was planning to get through this review without making reference to “magical realism,” the literary mode the critic Ray Verzasconi defines as, “an expression of the New World reality which at once combines the rational elements of the European super-civilization, and the irrational elements of a primitive America.” But Charlotte Forbes, an American, not a South American, writer fuses those two often warring elements most successfully.

The narrator of the last story, Ayela’s granddaughter, ends the book with these words of thanks: “For the peace in my heart. For the feeling of being out of time, beyond the tyranny of thought, wholly alone, and yet, for a moment, possessed of the expansive grace that ties one to all creatures.”

As an epigraph for his novel “In the Skin of a Lion,” Michael Ondaatje quotes John Berger: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.” He might as well have been describing this moving and lovely book.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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