In Other Words The Sisters of Alameda Street
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).