|Frontera Street / Tanya Maria Barrientos
NAL Trade, c2002
This book first appealed to me because of its connection to sewing -- a main character finds a job in a fabric store in the barrio when she is lost and in need of connection. The sewing bits turned out to be fairly minor; the story is more about the relationship between the two women who meet at the store, although the first introduction to the shop is redolent with fabric descriptions and sensory overload -- which I loved.
Dee Paxton is a very well off white woman, pregnant and newly widowed, who returns to her childhood home after the tragedy of her husband's sudden death. Her mother is away, however, and feels no need to return home to look after her pregnant bereaved daughter. So in her loneliness, Dee ends up on the other side of town, the Spanish side, and walks into a fabric store to apply for a job.
The owner of the store hires her on the spot, but Alma Cruz, the woman who is to train her on the details of the button counter, isn't impressed. Both Dee and Alma have their own secrets, and we slowly learn more of each of their backstories. Alma's daughter has just started at a prestigious arts school and Dee secretly gives money to the daughter to help out -- she has so much of it, anyhow.
Then, after a medical emergency, Dee moves into Alma's tiny house where they develop a prickly friendship. After months of Dee not telling anyone the truth about her circumstances or the large empty house she has on the rich side of town, the truth all spills out and, predictably, there are blowups, anger, and misunderstandings -- but wait! After not much angst at all, they come to a detente and everything works out for everyone.
This is a bit of a glib summary, but there were far too many unlikely situations in this book -- every chapter seemed to have another. Dramatic events all over the place! Romance, estrangements, parties, money, grief, possessiveness; you'll find it here. The theme, of friendship and understanding across racial and class divides, is important and does come through, but the required suspension of disbelief is pretty high throughout much of the action. And despite the multitude of dramatic issues and situations, the characters seemed a bit flat, like they were being moved around the story instead of moving it. I think I'd have preferred the story without Dee in it; Alma and her daughter were far more interesting.
The thread of sewing and community kept me going in this read; Dee learns to help with alterations, there are dresses all over their house at one point. There's a large chain fabric store that moves into town halfway through the story and pushes the fabric store out of business -- there's a brief discussion of what to do next, and that's where some alterations come in. And the discussion of clothing is a part of the story, from school to social groups to Quinceanera outfits.
There were also some moments of great writing -- the episode of the Miracle Muffin, which was apparently a short story before being included in the book, for example, is sharp and funny and has life to it. There is nothing wrong with the story but it just didn't grab me as much as I'd expected. The drama and the writing were both a bit flat, and felt just a touch after-school-special-ish.