Harriet Doerr’s second novel, (following her 1984 National Book Award-winning The Stones of Ibarrra, Consider This, Señor, (1993), is also focused on expatriate American characters experiencing life in rural Mexico. Sue Ames, a recently divorced painter, and Bud Loomis, a real estate developed who has fled tax liabilities in Arizona, but the remnants of a hacienda, including the ruins of a mansion. Both plan to build houses for themselves and to finance their houses by selling other lots. (They give the lot with the ruins to the still influential scion of the family that once, before the revolution, ran everything farther than the eye could see.)
Sue enjoys the vistas and builds a comfortable house. Bud has had to transfer his raison d’être from accumulating dollars to accumulating pesos, but remains dedicated to the pursuit of quick profits, and builds a boxy “functional” house.
While observing a fiesta, Sue meets another American divorcée, Frances Bowles, who gathers local color professionally (for guidebooks). Frances is enamored (and loudly banging) Paco. She decides that she will build a house for herself and another for her widowed 79-year-old mother Ursula next to Sue’s and makes it her base. “When Fran told her mother about Paco, Ursula almost believed she had already met and been charmed by him. He was the third excessively charming man her daughter had loved” and Ursula has forebodings he will slip away as his predecessors did.
The novel switches from expatriate American to expatriate American, with Ursula and Bud having the most extensive dealings with the locals, particularly the priest, the faded aristocratic lawyer, and the girls who work in their houses. Fran is preoccupied with the elusive Paco, and Sue largely fades out of view through the middle of the novel, but plays a central role in the end. The book is considerably more “about” the relationships that develop between expatriate American and Mexican characters than those between the four expatriate Americans living fairly close together above the town. Doerr does not condescend to/about the Mexican characters in the manner of the greatest Anglophone expatriate in Mexico novel, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano or trowel on mystic projections as D. H. Lawrence did in The Plumed Serpent. The alternation between puzzlement and bemusement the Mexican characters have for the strange behavior of the foreigners who have set up lives in their neighborhood ring true to me. The octogenarian novelist was not sentimental about the characters she created, but was affectionate toward them (even Bud).
The book is not as searing as the title story from The Tiger in the Grass, but is a sure-footed exploration of lives that intersect more than they connect. Doerr’s ear for different ways of speaking was as keen as her eye for telling detail of landscape, architecture, or raiment. For me, she provides the image of an ideal mother maintaining an interior life of her own through and beyond a lengthy marriage. I realize this is an particular projection of my own, but I can’t imagine anyone reading her work not agreeing that she wrote with lucidity and concision. (I especially enjoy how the very last line is set up!)
©2003, 2018, Stephen O. Murray