A Mexico book by Harriet Doerr
Only a sense of duty got me through this boring novel. I know that it comes with all kinds of recommendations and wonderful reviews from all the best sources. Harriet Doerr won the American Book Award in 1984 with her novel “Stones for Ibarra.” And “Consider This…” was a best-seller in its day. Nonetheless, it was 241 pages of chore for this reader.
Just as a matter of interest, I reviewed “Stones for Ibarra” many moons ago. My verdict at that time was: Sentimental and quite lacking in conviction and authenticity.” I can say exactly the same thing about this book. Ms. Doerr just doesn’t have very believable characters to carry her feeble story. They’re like puppets who do and say things when she pulls the strings. But they have no sense of having lives when she isn’t working those cords.
The story takes place “a number of years ago”. That kind of woolly vagueness is Doerr’s hallmark. Later on she does mention a president who is in power at the time and from that I’d place the story around 1964. She’s equally vague on where the story takes place. None of the towns that are mentioned are in my map book of Mexico. The area Doerr’s talking about could even be a version of the Lake Chapala area of decades ago.
The highly improbable plot concerns two characters, Sue and Bud, who come together on a dried up mesa where there’s a lake and a nearby town. Sue is an artist, trying to find herself in Mexico. Bud is on the run from the IRS for non-payment of taxes. The two form a highly unlikely union and purchase ten acres of land in order to set up a business building houses on the slopes overlooking the lake. I simply can’t imagine a more unconvincing beginning for a story and Doerr isn’t very good at persuading us that either the relationship or the business venture would stand a chance of working. I should also add that there isn’t even a hint of any romance between the two.
The story covers a few years in the lives of Sue and Bud. Other characters appear, of course. A few people do buy the houses that Bud builds. Such as the elderly Ursula who seems to have come to Mexico to die. And then there’s Fran, another lady with Mexican connections who wants to build a home in this unlikely place as a way to hang on to her handsome Mexican lover. There are also some locals who move in and out of the plot – the town mayor, a young doctor, maids, gardeners, etc.
The descriptions of places are all so soft and gentle and pretty-pretty and don’t really resemble any kind of Mexico I see when I step outside my door. It comes as a distinct shock when Doerr actually describes something in a negative or realistic way, when, for example, she mentions in passing that the local puebla of Amapolas is “a town of unpaved streets that still lacked drains.” Or when an off-stage character is asked if she’d like to move to Mexico she responds negatively, in shocked tones: “Live in a place where you can’t drink the water, eat the food, understand the exchange or trust the police?” But these are rare instances in a narrative that “limns in lapidary prose a novel of loss and renewal in a small Mexican village,” – as one reviewer describes it.
I shouldn’t make it sound like a total loss. The novel does have its moments. I will admit to being touched by the description of Ursula’s death:
“Our lives are brief beyond our comprehension or our desire, she told herself. We drop like cottonwood leaves from trees after a single frost. The interval between birth and death is scarcely more than a breathing space. Tonight, in her house on a Mexican hill, Ursula Bowles listened to the five assembled in her sala and though she heard the faint rustle of their days slipping by. She could see now that an individual life is, in the end, nothing more than a stirring of air, a shifting of light. No one of us, finally, can be more than that. Even Einstein. Even Brahms. Then the widow slept.
In my humble O: Ms Doerr still lacks conviction and authenticity.
Consider This, Señora
By Harriet Doerr
Harcourt Brace paperback, 1993
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback