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Book Club Wed Aug 15 2007

September 2007 Selection: Peel My Love Like an Onion by Ana Castillo

“When you are in love no single metaphor is enough. No metaphor appears just a tad clichéd. 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.”

So begins Ana Castillo’s Peel My Love Like an Onion, the story of Carmen Santos, a woman with not one, but three great loves of her life. Carmen is six years old when she’s struck with polio, the disease leaving her left leg undeveloped and weak, and it’s in her Physical Rehabilitation class at her School for the Handicapped that Carmen meets her first great love. A vibrant and inspiring teacher, Miss Dorotea, encourages Carmen to stand up in front of the class, forget her disabilities and dance flamenco. After some initial misgivings and efforts to compensate for her left leg, Carmen ends up studying flamenco with Miss Dorotea for five years, the intense practice eventually allowing her to walk without her crutches. It is this dance and her passion for it that brings Carmen to her two other loves: Agustin and Manolo.

The leader of a dance troupe, Agustin is a gypsy who travels back and forth between the States and his self-proclaimed native Spain (Agustin was actually born in Cleveland). The two carry on a love affair for seventeen years, even while Carmen is fully aware that Agustin’s Spanish travels are for the purpose of visiting the wife he keeps back home. Carmen’s affair with Manolo is much shorter by comparison, spanning only one year of their lives, but the eventual loss of both is devastating to Carmen. As a fellow flamenco dancer and godson to Agustin, Manolo comes in to Carmen’s life suddenly and their love is intense and instantaneous: “I am dead,” Carmen says to a friend after recounting her first kiss with Manolo. “It’s the beginning of the end. That boy is my destiny and I am his.” The affairs carry on simultaneously and while it may be Manolo for whom Carmen feels that sharp, vise-like grip of love and lust, it’s Agustin who is her teacher in life and in love, who watches her grow up into a woman and whose far-away wife still manages to incur her jealousy. They are “two faces of the same ancient coin,” and they are both the best and the worst of her worlds.

The point at which the reader is introduced to Carmen is after both relationships have ended. Both Agustin and Manolo have left Carmen and the country and, in her 40s, Carmen’s polio has come back and robbed her of her last true love. She’s living at home with her parents, at first making some money in an airport pizza shop and later sewing at home after her pain gets so bad she’s unable to stand for long periods of time. Her depression is palpable, the overflowing emotions of a woman who feels she’s come to an end long before she’s due: “I tell my mother one day that I feel just lousy, lousy all the time, even in my sleep and when I wake I feel worse, and then I just look over at her and start crying.” For a woman who has lost all that she lived for and all that composed the identity she claimed, it is not difficult to sympathize with the heart of this otherwise exotic tale.

Castillo tells Carmen’s story in a series of short chapters, vignettes that could very well stand on their own. Every one is a whole thought unto itself, but together they work to pull the reader deeper into Carmen’s narrative, each peeling away to reveal the next affecting layer until the heart is reached, much like the image the novel’s title evokes. Peel My Love Like an Onion is undoubtedly a story about love – clichéd and unique, owned and shared, found and lost. It’s a story about knowing oneself and reinventing oneself when all aspects of that former self have gone. It is a story about the intersection of passion and reality and what one woman must do when she realizes the two no longer meet.

* * *

Ana Castillo was born and raised in Chicago and her novels, essays and poems have won many awards, including the Carl Sandburg Literary Award in Fiction, the American Book Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the co-founder of the literary magazine Third Woman and a contributing editor to Humanizarte magazine. She has been a writer in residence for the Illinois Arts Council and has Master’s degrees in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the University of Chicago; she later earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Bremen in Germany. Castillo currently lives in New Mexico. For more on Ana Castillo, visit her website at www.anacastillo.com.

 
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