In Other Words The Sis­ters of Alameda Street

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - by Lorena Hughes

Malena Sevilla is dis­traught over her father’s re­cent sui­cide when, while go­ing through his be­long­ings, she dis­cov­ers a note buried deep in a trunk. “Giv­ing my daugh­ter away was a de­plorable, un­for­giv­able thing,” Malena reads, as­ton­ished to dis­cover that her mother did not die in child­birth, as she had al­ways been told. Malena is de­ter­mined to find out who the au­thor of the note is, us­ing its sig­na­ture — a sin­gle let­ter A. — as her main clue.

The Sis­ters of Alameda Street, the de­but novel of New Mex­ico res­i­dent Lorena Hughes, is al­ready filled with in­trigue by its sec­ond page, and the mo­men­tum never di­min­ishes from there. Malena leaves her newly soli­tary life in Guayaquil, Ecuador, soon af­ter re­ceiv­ing the let­ter in 1962, head­ing to the let­ter’s re­turn ad­dress in the An­des moun­tain town of San Isidro. There, she meets the Platas fam­ily, in­clud­ing the three sis­ters Ana, Amanda, and Ale­jan­dra — all names that start with an A. Their de­ceased fourth sis­ter, Abi­gail, adds one more po­ten­tial mother to the mix.

Be­cause of a mix-up, the Platas fam­ily wel­comes Malena into their home, be­liev­ing her to be an­other young woman whom they were ex­pect­ing (but who, for­tu­nately for Malena, has run away with her boyfriend in­stead). Malena stays with the fam­ily, pre­tend­ing to be the other woman while she sur­rep­ti­tiously tries to de­duce who her mother is. As she gets to know the generations of Platas women and men bet­ter, Malena be­gins to un­earth fam­ily sto­ries past and present: sto­ries of il­licit ro­mance, be­trayal, mis­un­der­stand­ings with dire con­se­quences, sen­sual tan­gos, and even sexy ac­coun­tants. She also gets to ex­pe­ri­ence some of the fun her­self.

In­ter­mixed through­out the chap­ters set in the ’60s, chap­ters that take place be­tween 1936 and 1941 de­pict the true story of the Platas sis­ters, pro­vid­ing read­ers with a view­point that is de­nied Malena while ex­pos­ing clues to the mys­tery she is try­ing to solve. Hughes’ al­ter­na­tion be­tween the novel’s past and present gives read­ers the sat­is­fac­tion of added char­ac­ter en­rich­ment, clar­i­fy­ing why Amanda has a limp and Ana hides a bruise on her wrist.

The Sis­ters of Alameda Street has a de­light­fully melo­dra­matic plot. Its set­ting pre­dates the wide pop­u­lar­ity of te­len­ov­e­las — in­stead, char­ac­ters cro­chet while lis­ten­ing to their fa­vorite ra­dionov­ela — but its plot re­calls the twists and mys­ter­ies of that TV form. Plot tends to trump scenic speci­ficity, de­spite in­ter­spersed lo­cal de­tails: guayabera shirts, agua de

tomillo, the sacada and gan­cho tango steps. The nar­ra­tive also tends to get in the way of vivid de­scrip­tions, with vague ad­jec­tives tak­ing their place. “Their foot­work was pre­cise, in­tri­cate, and im­pec­ca­ble,” Hughes writes, shortly be­fore de­scrib­ing Amanda’s beauty as “sur­real, ab­surd.”

But what a di­vert­ing plot it is. The Sis­ters of Alameda Street is a joy to read, with delectably evil vil­lains and grat­i­fy­ingly strong fe­male char­ac­ters. When those women face mar­i­tal, so­ci­etal, and ca­reer lim­i­ta­tions, they end up overcoming them with in­ge­nu­ity. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a hand­some suitor in the mix, too.) For some, like Malena, do­ing so may re­quire a bit of du­plic­ity, but as you’ve prob­a­bly read on a T-shirt, “Well-be­haved women sel­dom make his­tory.” A bit of bad be­hav­ior is great for pro­tag­o­nists, too. — Grace Paraz­zoli

Lorena Hughes reads from “The Sis­ters of Alameda Street” at 3 p.m. on Satur­day, July 29, at Book­works in Al­bu­querque (4022 Río Grande Blvd. NW, 505-344-8139).

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