ARTISTIC PREOCCUPATION with the consequences of teenage maternity is among the most vibrant geists of our current zeit, from 17 Girls, 2011’s somnolent French reimagining of the 2008 Massachusetts “pregnancy pact,” to MTV’s inescapable Teen Mom franchise. And although American teenage pregnancy rates fell 40 percent between 1990 and 2008, Helen Lovejoy–style hysteria rules the day in discussions of the sex lives of young people. Every commercial break on Teen Mom is bookended by dire statistics about the fate of children of young mothers, each behind-the-scenes special sternly presided over by the faux concern of television’s worst liar, Dr. Drew. Won’t somebody please think of the children? Well, no. Our obsession is with shaming and regulating the young bodies that produce them.
This fetish — for the swelling pubescent tummy, the stark anguish of a sophomore in labor, her exhausted machinations between intransigent baby daddy and bawling infant — is easy to understand. It’s schadenfreude on a massive scale, the delight of watching the guilty be punished. But literary fiction has shied away from this morbid fascination, choosing instead to treat teenage pregnancy as a long-ago horror (the Southern Ontario Gothics do this best: think Munro, Atwood) or vehicle for postmodern angst. In Ramona Ausubel’s tone-deaf story “Atria,” from the April 4, 2011, issue of The New Yorker, a teenage girl becomes pregnant after meekly submitting to unpleasant sex with two strangers. Attended by nameless, faceless sisters and mother, she gives birth to a creepy little baby and douses it in dirty mop water, an act that somehow kick-starts instant maternal instinct. Ausubel might have intended “Atria” to be surreal or comic, but it succeeds only as a harsh reminder of contemporary authors’ distaste for motherhood — a subject, we are told, for mommybloggers, The Huffington Post, and smug marrieds, not artists.
The Sad Passions, Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s extraordinary novel of desire, loss, and matrilineal history, explodes the teenage pregnancy script through its unflinching plumbing of the bond between mother and daughter. The Sad Passions begins with a story we think we know, and then shows us how little any of us understand: about our ancestors, our parents, ourselves. Six women from one family attempt to reconcile conflicting accounts of their unhappy childhoods, seeking release from the burden of memory through a canon of confession. In the universe of this book, every consummated desire contains the seed of its dissolution. A novel of this kind could easily become sentimental or melodramatic, but Gonzalez Peña is a fearless and tough writer, capable of skillfully interpolating moments of tender intimacy with scenes of shocking violence. What matters more, her book asks: a family’s worst memories, or its happiest? A mother’s love for her children, or her recognition of the destructive force of that love? The novel propels the reader to a space few willingly visit: the moment of disjuncture between mother and child that produces the first painful gasps of the self.
Its cyclical and obsessive plot makes it difficult to say where The Sad Passions starts or ends; each chapter spans decades of minutely recounted personal history, and each tale is told with an eye to the long afterlife of childhood memory. The family it chronicles begins in 1960, when 16-year-old Claudia leaves her comfortable Mexico City home with the irresistible M. (Gonzalez Peña’s reliance on this character’s initial is somewhat baffling; his name is revealed to be Miguel in several chapters.) Claudia’s decision, which soon culminates in a pregnancy, is rooted not in masculine coercion or soft-minded dreams of family but in her own blunt desire: “He turned his gaze on me for just one weighty second — his liquid blue eyes pulling at my center — before quickly turning away in feigned indifference, and I didn’t know how I would ever stop thinking of him again.” The Sad Passions is an echo chamber of indelible memories retold in crystalline prose, each recitation deviating further from the original.
The novel grants the reader entry to a Mexican milieu with which few Americans are acquainted: the lively and cultured world of midcentury Mexico City, with its Rivera and Orozco murals, its “happy little cafes where you can stop languorous and sit at bright formica counters,” its women “so beautiful you could not have imagined their existence.” The Distrito Federal is not merely the novel’s setting, but another of its characters, a “city prophesied by an eagle and a snake warring it out in the middle of that lake, there underneath those sleeping volcanoes, those mountains of slumbering lava life.” But The Sad Passions is also a global novel with a roving eye that takes the reader to provincial Mexico in the earliest years of the 20th century, 1960 Kansas, and contemporary Los Angeles, Long Island, and Spain.
Each character is stuck in the trauma of childhood and the unanswerable questions of the self; no matter how far they travel from their broken home, they find they have carried the brokenness inside them. Theirs is a true matriarchy, presided over by Claudia’s mother, Cecilia, a divorcée from an era when women did not divorce: “You must understand,” Claudia tells us, “nobody ever threw them out for cheating with the maid. Every man cheated with the maid; this was Mexico, 1950, so it was a pre-ordained fact.” When Claudia’s banker father fails to return from Oaxaca, where he has journeyed to help establish a German logging company, Cecilia begins the cycle of self-reliance that will protect and unite her granddaughters, taking a job that ensures the family’s survival. In Cecilia’s house, elaborate dinners are prepared by a cook, cards are played nightly, and all are welcome, especially Claudia and her brood of daughters, alone after M tires of the latest round of playing family.
Claudia’s daughters are raised in this mostly happy cacophony. Their mother is the primary problem, hated by her siblings and a torture to Cecilia, for Claudia suffers from bouts of paranoia, violent agitation, and catatonic depression likely aggravated by the electroconvulsive shock therapy she receives at M’s behest. Sanity washes in and out of Claudia. For long stretches she is charming, inarguably sexy, stylish, funny; then she begins to make overtures to her daughters’ boyfriends, attacks her children without cause, and finally takes to her bed, paralyzed by inexplicable fear. In the wake of her instability, Claudia’s daughters choose imperfect escapes: surrogate mothers, early marriage, affected ambivalence. The novel is the record of each woman’s search for identity, agency, and release. Most of The Sad Passions’s chapters are told by Claudia or one of her daughters, with one chapter from the point of view of Sofia, Claudia’s sister. The overlapping narratives create a kaleidoscopic vision of family life. Claudia’s daughters grow up powerless in the hands of the family romance: “Little tiny girls, and in the war that was our family already our sins were being written out for us.”
Rocio, Claudia’s eldest, is beautiful and demure, an unwilling little mother to both her sisters and mother. Rocio suffers the firstborn’s curse, automatic witness: “helpful,” “innocent,” “gullible.” “A green-eyed coward,” she calls herself. Julia is the preferred target of Claudia’s rages and violence, which eventually lead to her being sent to live with an uncle in the United States. Marta, third-born, enjoys the questionable benefits of being Claudia’s favorite. As a child, her loyalty to her neglectful mother renders her half-feral, a neighborhood grifter adept at charming dinner off other mothers, always ready with a hissed threat; as an adult, she is distrustful and harsh in her judgment of others. While Rocio and Julia shy away from Claudia’s rages, Marta rages right back, demanding her mother’s attention with attacks, taunts, and, in one memorable scene, angry urination.
Sandra, the youngest, is something else entirely: a kind of changeling, a magic child endowed with powers of extrasensory perception and tasked with divining the meaning of Julia’s absence. Trapped in Julia’s shadow, she performs tiny rituals that read like both the behavior of a traumatized person and a kind of beautifully individual performance art, as Rocio recalls:
Sandra pulled eight big leaves from the juniper tree — she picked them carefully, examining each before pulling it off the branch — and then she picked up eight rocks one of which she stacked atop each one of those leaves. She then lit a match […] She lit the corners of the leafs [sic], carefully each one, and then she watched them burn and when they were just ash she took the stones up and angrily shouted out to whatever force was there with her, “Ouch, they’re hot! I told you they would be hot!” before walking over and piling the warm little stones next to the sink where the maid, Maria, kept our wash.
Sandra’s recollection of these performances is just as mysterious: she describes them as choreographed by an invisible friend who understands her uniquely stressful family situation:
As a child I’d had someone who helped me sift through all these things, to filter and soothe […] I could not say who he was. […] [H]e would ask me to do things, to put things in a certain order, to arrange and burn corners […] In exchange he would protect me. He would calm me. He would give me an order and clarity I could feel.
Are Sandra’s rituals simple childhood fantasy, a type of trauma performance, or a very sly sort of magical realism? Gonzalez Peña does not direct the reader’s reading of these scenes, only presents them, clearly and indelibly as memory itself. The novel’s subject matter — the search for truth in a family history riddled with omissions and mystical interconnections — could easily lend itself to softheaded magic, the kind of transnarrative mesh relied on by writers like Isabel Allende, strange happenings that reveal themselves at book’s end to be considerably less than the sum of their parts. But Gonzalez Peña wisely avoids this trap by positioning the wound at this family’s center — Claudia’s unnamed mental illness — as a constant presence. Claudia’s unpredictable behavior is puzzled out piecemeal, turned over and over with the tired intimacy well known to the families of the mad. The ineffable and the supernatural are reserved for moments of beauty and self-knowledge, and in these scenes we perceive the depth of each woman’s self-knowledge and the miracle of her survival.
At first, it can be difficult to keep the wealth of narrators straight, particularly because it is immediately evident that Julia, Claudia’s second-eldest daughter, and Sandra, her youngest, are linked by a mystical twinship, as Sandra explains on the novel’s first page:
Of all my sisters I was the only one who looked like Julia […] so alike that it is as if my sister herself had magically passed these things down to me before she left, or was forced to leave, as if through me she intended to be felt there, to be continually thought of, even in her absence.
Julia is first sent away at age six, and although she returns for intermittent visits throughout her childhood, the breach is permanent. The reason for her separation from her family is both simple and complicated: the family consensus holds that Julia is singled out for especially harsh treatment because she alone of her sisters is not M’s child but the product of an affair with M’s best friend, but the issue of Julia’s paternity is strangely the most confusing element in a plot thick with secrets and lies. If Sandra is M’s child, why does she bear such a strong resemblance to Julia and not her other sisters? If, as Julia imagines, Claudia’s relationship with M’s best friend constituted an act of erotic agency and revenge against M’s constant infidelity and absence, why does Claudia single Julia out for special mistreatment?
The Sad Passions’s jacket copy clumsily suggests that “Julia’s disappearance […] could symbolize the destabilizing impact of manic depression” (surely the first time I’ve seen an awkward close reading make its way into a fine novel’s promotional materials), but the intimacy with which Gonzalez Peña treats Julia’s sections suggests that the mystery of Julia’s mistreatment may be still unresolved by the author herself, or perhaps that it is an enigma to be accepted rather than a mystery to be solved. Julia’s chapters are distinguished from the others by her Sebaldian habit of interpolating photographs with text. They often begin as essays on contemporary art, musings on Robert Barry, Hans Bellmer, and Francesca Woodman that transform into deeply personal reflections on a mostly solitary life. At first, I disliked this abrupt departure from the intricately plotted narrative Gonzalez Peña had so carefully constructed; but then I realized that these asides on art function as a most elegant form of transference, Julia’s way of warding off pain by ruminating on the seemingly neutral topic of art. The artists she chooses all seem to be preoccupied with a quite narrow topic — the vulnerability and malleability of the female form, the impossibility of isolating memory from reality, the symbiosis between sex and death — and this habit of looking away from the self becomes not only intriguing but refreshing, a necessary break for both narrator and reader.
The Sad Passions is told in a series of revolving narratives, like interlocking rings. Many of the women’s revelations are almost unbearably intimate, as when Rocio, playing with her little daughter on the beach, realizes that her child “did not have the sad dark brilliance of Sandra, and then I thought that I was glad for that.” There are long, lyrical passages of description, bitingly funny stories of sex and romance (Marta: “He absolutely believed that at sixteen I was still a virgin. Sweet, the schmuck.”), and moments upon moments of the prismatic pain Claudia leaves in her wake.
Although each sister’s voice stands in stark contrast to the others — a representative Marta chapter begins “A month or two after Julia left that last visit, I decided to get the fuck out of there myself” — the cumulative effect of their telling and retelling is hypnotically engaging, a kind of literary version of the ladymass, a medieval English polyphony for female voices. The spell breaks when the narrative is in Claudia’s hands; in her chapters, the book becomes less trance-inducing and more gripping. In prose Claudia is equal parts entertaining —“My mother’s young life had been incredibly cloistered. She’d still get excited by candles and balloons at fifteen. 1931 and a balloon was all it took” — and tragic: “I had been afraid that I was that mother who could set fire to her own daughters” is the closest the reader gets from Claudia for an explanation of why she sends Julia away.
By the book’s end, Gonzalez Peña’s narrative strategy comes to seem both kind and bracing. Gonzalez Peña succeeds where many others have failed in creating a novel that truly privileges female interiority. The men of The Sad Passions are quagmires and footnotes, uninteresting or impossible. Here, woman is subject, man object; here, men are prized for their beauty but hated for their fickleness, their failures of loyalty. Women are the actors, the owners, the ones who go to work, raise the children, and sort the detritus of emotional life.
The reader hears the same stories several times, but each time the tale is changed, bent. The book shows how words can be both a prison and its key. Sandra and Julia are united by their much-remarked-upon resemblance but divided by their fear: of their sameness, of understanding it, of love itself. And yet the imperfect bond that threatens to sink both women is also a life raft, the key that can release them from the past. “Imagine there is a door and you can walk through it and you can get outside. Imagine you are not trapped; imagine there is a door, and it leads outside,” Sandra’s friend tells her, in what sounds to me like a description of The Sad Passions itself.
Comparisons to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives are probably inevitable, a juxtaposition flattering to both books, and apt; where Bolaño’s cosmopolitan Mexico City teenage detectives run wild in service to the god of literature, Gonzalez Peña’s flee the wrath and inconsistent kindness of Claudia. The two sets of sleuths are united by their youth, their infectious interest in the world around them, and their touching hope. Like Bolaño, Gonzalez Peña has a seemingly inexhaustible store of anecdotal knowledge, a great gift for black humor, and the ability to construct a captivating world both thrillingly familiar and engagingly strange. But the writer I thought of most when reading The Sad Passions was a different disaffected South American: Clarice Lispector, who burst into the literary firmament at age 23 in 1943 with the novel Near To The Wild Heart. Joana, the wonderfully wicked protagonist of that novel, muses: “Pity is my way of loving. Of hating and communicating. It is what sustains me against the world, just as one person lives through desire, another through fear. Pity for things that happen without my knowledge.” This assured, simultaneous lust for and exhaustion with the business of living is what sets The Sad Passions alight. Like Lispector’s work, Gonzalez Peña’s novel is a welcome reminder of the happy passions as well as the sad, and the inextricable link between the two.
The Sad Passions explodes the tired assumption that women’s interiority is intrinsically domestic, fanning out women’s inner lives like the vibrant sections of a peacock’s tail. It upends our expectations of a novel about women’s family life. The cumulative effect of Gonzalez Peña’s novel is that of a hall of mirrors: an intimate, personal hall of mirrors, a psychic hall of mirrors. This, she tells us, is where women live, how women live, in the company of past selves, future selves, in the anguished haunting of possible selves. This is where women’s lives happen, in the space in between memory and present, in the split-second recognition of one’s reflection, before turning from the glass and going out into the world.