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A Shimmering Novel Of Reinvention In Rural Mexico

04/01/2015 09:20 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

Book people I know sometimes play this game. They ask how you've arranged your books. For some its alphabetically. Others place authors who might get along (or least make interesting dinner party conversation) next to each other. I line my bookshelves with books I like, place books I love opposite my desk, and keep my very favorites, the ones I might need to reach for at any moment, next to my bed.

That is where my worn first edition of Harriet Doerr's second novel, Consider This, Señora, lives. I stumbled upon this gem with its fraying dust jacket in a used bookstore when I was in graduate school. This is the book I read and reread when I need to fall into the poetry of memory and landscape and language.

I love Harriet Doerr's biography. She published only two novels and one collection of essays in her ninety-two years. She grew up in a wealthy Pasadena family, went to Smith College in 1927, and left after her first year to marry. Because of her husband's work, her family divided their time between California and Mexico. After he died, she graduated from Stanford in 1977 (yes, fifty years after she first started college) and was then a Stegner Fellow at the university's famed creative writing program. Her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, grew out of her work there and won the American Book Award in 1984.

Like Stones for Ibarra, Consider This, Señora draws on Doerr's time in Mexico. The novel follows four expatriates relocated to rural Mexico in 1962: Bud Loomis to evade the IRS; seventy-nine-year-old Ursula Bowles to die in the country where she was born; and her daughter, Fran, to chase love in this exotic locale. But the heart of the novel, the "señora" of the title, is newly divorced Susanna Ames -- or "Susahanahahmes" as her Mexican neighbors call her -- who "chose La Luz as a stopping place, partly because of the sweep of landscape that surrounded it and partly because no one she knew had recommended it ... Sue believed that in rural Mexico she might at last be left alone. People here would hardly expect her to live wisely, marry happily."

These four Americans find themselves in a village of a thousand souls, in adobe homes on the barren mesa of Amapolas, recrafting their lives beside a generations-old dilapidated hacienda, where ancient widows tie goats around their waists and beautiful young girls serve as housekeepers and grow up to become lovers. Love, elusive and yearned for, remembered and revealed, returns again and again on these pages.

The magic of this novel is how it slips between cultures, language, memory, and time. All of this is in play in this interaction between Altagracia, a young Catholic girl, and the distinctly unreligious Ursula Bowles.

"[Altagracia] touched the framed photograph of a man. 'Is this your husband?' she asked.
"Ursula nodded. 'Philip,' she said. 'Felipe.'
"'Padre Miguel could pray for the repose of his soul,' the girl suggested.
"The widow, stunned by a sudden longing to reverse time, touch this Philip's young mouth again, and feel his hand on her young breasts, said nothing."

Sliding effortlessly between points of view, Harriet Doerr plays with the notion of otherness. The Americans are foreigners in this deeply Catholic country. They inhabit a class far above their new neighbors, and when they try to address that discrepancy, pay a fair price for the flowers from the young girl at the market, say, they wind up receiving every blossom in the girl's basket. Doerr neither judges the Americans who bring feminism and atheism and their belief that children should have a childhood with them to this small village, nor the Mexicans who know how it is between men and women, who worry for their new neighbors' souls, and understand that children are often hungry and routinely die before they finish school. She simply invites the reader to inhabit the village of Amapolas as well.
This sharpness of observation, whether acutely accurate or falsely projected, reveals a textured portrait of this village and its inhabitants.

Sue's encounter with a stranger over the grocer's grace did not go unobserved in the village and on the mesa. Ursula Bowles noticed it from the outer edge of her garden, and, unsurprised, was thankful that at last a man had discovered Sue. For, even at a distance and with impaired vision, it was clear to the widow from the stranger's way of standing (I am willing to wait) and the quick turn of his head toward Sue (You are a most beautiful woman) that this might be the man to rescue her from the ranks of the unloved, among whom she had inserted herself a number of years ago.

It's this delight in language that makes this novel so magical to me. Harriet Doerr tells an entire story in those brief sentences, as much Ursula Bowles's as it is Sue's.

When I think of this novel, I see the riotous vermilions and plums and apricots of the Mexican skies that Susanna paints. The market, the churches, the thick adobe walls, the clouds of dust on the endless vistas. I remember the seamless and beautiful telescoping of time from present to past to future and back.

Yet each time I reread it, I find myself surprised by how fresh, yet familiar it remains. I revisit this novel to drift into memory, to slide between language, to feel the delicious possibility of reinvention and settlement into a new community. Consider This, Señora is a story of otherness and acceptance, of blossoming and withering, of possibility and love. With its musical language and kaleidoscopic perspective, its offerings are rich and inviting.

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