Seeing a book on at the bookstore with my friend’s name on the spine gives me a vicarious thrill- but I open the book with a feeling of trepidation. What if I don’t like it? I cannot, like Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, look my friend in the eye and flatly state, “Frankly, it was bad. You should stick to (insert day job here).” Perhaps that is why it took me six months after the release of “When the de la Cruz Family Danced” to get around to reading my coworker Donna Miscolta’s first published novel. I needn’t have worried.
Like Jane Austen, Donna has written a story where most of the action is internal to the characters. A young man questions his paternity, an old man reconsiders his treatment of his family, people grow a little. But this is no stuffy English comedy of manners. A mixed-race family living in a bad neighborhood in a strip-mall-ridden So-Cal town, the de la Cruzes have no fashion sense and few social skills. They are misfits even amongst each other, sharing little more as a family than a sense that everything they do is slightly skewed somehow.
Johnny was not ignorant of his own shortcomings, especially when he saw them repeated in his daughters – the awkwardness and hesitancy with which they stumbled from childhood through adolescence to confused adulthood, in constant anticipation that life would begin to happen at any moment, but fearful at heart that it had already happened without them.
As the de la Cruz family moves through the non-events of a story tightly tied to the ordinary and mundane, they try so hard not to make mistakes, and yet never quite get anything right. Their repressed feelings and self-edited actions lend a strange flatness to their lives. The introduction of a handsome young man with a stylish haircut and good manners provides enough contrast to their restrained and awkward existence to throw everything off balance. The inevitable climax releases only some of the tension when it realistically comes not as a soap-operatic revelation, but a messy, typical family blow-out at a funeral. The lid is quickly put back on, and on the surface, life continues as before. Although hopeful, any lasting changes are slight, and are not quite acknowledged by the family.
Donna’s carefully written novel consistently struck me with its wise observations of average humans.
“I thought you might have bought green beans,” he said.
Tessie was silent a moment. “Well, dear,” she said finally, “I’m not a mind reader.”
Johnny acknowledged this with a disappointed nod. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. But it did matter, because some couples knew such things about each other. He knew it was his fault that he and Tessie did not.
Moments like this are almost casually scattered on each evocative page. She captures feelings of awkwardness and insecurity with painful accuracy. Although it is a work of fiction, “When the de la Cruz Family Danced” contains more truth than you are likely to find almost anywhere else.