Monday, 9 November 2009

Cannonball Read Book 2: "Tarnished Beauty" by Cecilia Samartin

Publisher: Washington Square Press
Page Count: 368 pages
Date begun: November 7th, 2009
Date finished: November 8th, 2009

My mother read this book translated into Norwegian, and recommended it to me. When reading books that are originally written in a language I do not read fluently, such as Spanish or Russian, I have no problem reading the book in Norwegian, and often prefer to, as despite living in Norway, and even teaching Norwegian in school, I tend to read nearly everything in English nowadays. The Norwegian title of the book is Senor Peregrino, making me believe the original novel was in Spanish. Once I realized it was originally written in English, however, I tracked down a copy on Amazon and ordered it for myself.

The title Tarnished Beauty refers to the protagonist Jamilet Juárez, a young Mexican girl cursed with a massive bloodred birthmark covering her back from her shoulders to her knees. Believed from birth to be associated with the Devil, as her virtuous and beautiful mother became pregnant through rape (although Jamilet's mother, grandmother and aunt keep telling her colourful, if differing stories about the violent and dramatic ways her supposed father died long ago), Jamilet leads an extremely sheltered life in the tiny Mexican village that was her home. She learns English during a year her mother works as a maid for an American family, and she is allowed to play with the daughter of the house. Once her mother dies, she has no choice but to travel to the US, as she is shunned by the villagers, and she hopes that in America doctors will be able to cure her of her terrible blemish.

In Los Angeles, she moves in with her drunken aunt, and after her aunt helps her get fake documents, she is able to get a job at the nearby lunatic asylum. She falls hopelessly in love with Eddie, a boy dating the girl next door, and dreams of him, while trying to cope with her duties taking care of the foul-tempered, if very clever Senor Peregrino in the asylum. Clearly not a normal mental patient, he has sumptous furniture and Jamilet's personal duties involve fetching his food, running his errands and cleaning his room, although she is under strict instructions not to involve him in conversations, or listen to his delusional stories.

After being attacked by the hospital janitor, Jamilet is saved by the strange, old man, but loses her documents, and strikes up a bargain to have them returned. She promises to listen to his story about the pilgrimage he took in his youth, to Santiago the Compostela in his native Spain, and at the end of the story, he will give her back her documents. As the mysterious Senor Peregrino tells Jamilet his story, they develop a close friendship, which will change both their lives.

The book is well written, and Jamilet's loneliness, kindness and sadness is very well rendered by the author. She pines for a boy she believes she cannot have, and dreams of having her birthmark removed, so she can live a normal life, and not have to cover herself constantly. The story drags a bit in places during Peregrino's pilgrimage tale, and the end is a bit aprupt and sudden (and I read other places online that a lot of people really did not like it), but I think the story wraps up on a very hopeful note, with the author leaving some things unanswered on purpose.

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