Maria Elena and Enrique Espinosa lived a prosperous and happy life in Mexico. Enrique, a highly successful artist was known for his skilled artwork created from bird feathers. In time, that type of art fell out of favor and he was unable to support Maria Elena and their extended families. Leaving Mexico to seek work, the couple crossed into the United States illegally and found a home in a run-down apartment building near the San Francisco International Airport. A daughter, Letitia (Letty) was born soon after their arrival. By all accounts, Enrique was heartbroken to leave Mexico and his beloved mother; often dreaming of the day he would return. It wasn’t all that clear if Maria Elena cared one way or the other, as long as she was with her beloved, Enrique.
When Enrique learns that his mother is ill, he hires a coyote to take him back across the border and to provide a safe escort back to his family when his mother is well again. Six weeks have gone by and no word from Enrique. Maria Elena is frantically worried. She packs a bag, leaves a note for Letty explaining that she has gone to Mexico to find her husband.
Letty, now 33, is out partying and returns home to find the note. She is stunned that Maria Elena has walked out in the middle of the night leaving Letty’s two children upstairs asleep. She is shocked when she realizes that she must now care for her own children, something she has not done for 15 years.
Letty hastily adds a note on the bottom of Maria Elena’s letter leaving it on the kitchen table for her 14-year old son, Alex, to find when he awakens. She barrels out the front door and races to the bus station where she finds her mother about to board the bus.
Unable to convince her mother to return, she offers to drive her mother across the border, find her father and bring them both back. Knowing her mother would come unglued if she knew the children were alone, she lies telling Maria Elena they are with her best friend, Sara.
After driving for several days, they arrive at the old family estate to find Enrique mourning the death of his mother. Shortly after the funeral, Maria Elena tells Letty that she must return home and care for her children as she will not be returning. The parents are going to stay in Mexico.
Letty freaks out and hopes to get her mother to return by revealing her lie; the children have been alone all along. Maria Elena reaches the end of her proverbial knot and physically forces Letty outside. She tells her to go home and raise her children… then locks the door.
A terrified Letty retraces her drive back home to her children. She can’t imagine how they feeling knowing Nana won’t be back. Her greater fear is their reaction toward her after her years of unreliable behavior and disaffection. She loves her children; she just hasn’t shown them she values their affection.
…she tried to imagine her children’s faces when she walked through the door, but she’d spent so many years trying not to look at them that she couldn’t picture the clearly.
Letty’s parents were so proud of their young daughter as she grew in the American culture. They were so supportive that they stopped speaking Spanish in the home when she started school. She excelled academically and her teachers foresaw such a promising future for her. Wes Riley entered her life in high school and became a great friend. They grew closer over time and fell in love. Without proper guidance they had premarital sex. Wes headed off to check out college in the east over the summer. Letty discovered she was pregnant shortly after he left town.
In what Letty would like us to believe was a selfless act, she decides she is not going to tell Wes about the pregnancy. She says she wants him to return to her willingly, without pressure or obligation. Telling him would change his plans for the future and he would sacrifice his dreams to help her raise the child. Letty lies to her mother and tells her that Wes knows but now wants nothing to do with her. Maria Elena blocks contact with her daughter when Wes calls repeatedly to try to talk Letty into joining him.
Without a clue, Letty tries to plan a life with her baby boy she names Alex. She purchases a baby bed and places it in her bedroom. The first night home from the hospital, Letty finds that Maria Elena has moved the baby bed into her room. She tells Letty that it would be best if she took care of the child. Letty is hurt but doesn’t argue or fight for her child.
Enrique informs Letty that if she isn’t going to help raise her child, she will have to find work to help with his financial support. Letty’s work choices are limited. She is 18 and unskilled in any trade or profession. As she feels more and more worthless she begins drinking herself into oblivion. As the years click along, she sinks lower and lower. Somehow she manages to earn a little money from menial jobs. During one night of debauchery with an assortment of degenerates, she has sex with some stranger and becomes pregnant again. Letty has a daughter she names Luna. Letty sees Luna’s birth as a second chance to become a responsible mother but as soon as Maria Elena takes over Luna’s care, it doesn’t take long for her to slid into old habits.
During all these many years of irresponsible behavior, Maria Elena has raised the children in love, never forcing Letty to have any part in their lives. They crave the love and attention of their mother and savor the few moments she spends with them. Somewhere deep her in heart, Letty wants to be a good mother. She just can’t seem to pull it together to learn how.
So the day of reckoning arrives for Letty when Alex is 14 and Luna is 6. Her parents have moved back to Mexico and the ball is in Letty’s court.
Alex’s Story: The morning after…
The morning after the grownups in his life have walked away, Alex comes down for breakfast and finds his grandmother’s letter. After reading it, he knows that his life has changed forever. When he sees that his mother has abandoned them too, without a word, to follow his grandmother he knows that somehow he has to take care of Luna and avoid anything that would call attention to their situation. Will his mother come back? How will he survive?
Luna is an emotionally high-strung child wearing her stress on the outside. Much loved by her grandparents, it isn’t enough. She is starved for her mother’s love and attention. She is not going to take the news that everyone has abandoned them in stride.
He can’t believe that his beloved grandparents would leave him without saying goodbye. They have raised him to be a respectful child, showered him with love and helped him develop a strong sense of right and wrong. He and his grandfather have an especially close bond as they share a mutual love of birds. They have spent hours recording sightings and collecting feathers together. When Alex reflects on their time together and looks at the boxes of feathers, he spots a note in one of the boxes left by his Grandfather…“For My Alex. Make Wings.” He thinks…my grandfather had no intention of returning when he left. He has given me his feather collection.
Over the first few weeks, Alex does his best to give the appearance that he and Luna are not alone. He has watched his grandmother perform her daily routines and tries to emulate them. They manage for a time. His grandmother has prepared meals for a month and frozen them. Alex keeps things together but eventually resources are depleted. Yet, no word from his mother. The light at the end of the tunnel is getting harder to see.
Then one day he hears a knock at the door! Assuming it was his mother returning, he opens the door to find Sara. “Your mother has been in an accident.”
Letty As Mom-in-Charge
“You can‘t leave me. I can’t do anything without you.”
“If you can’t, it’s my fault.” Maria Elena looked at Enrique, her expression half accusation, half surrender. “Your father thinks I have ruined your life.”
On her ride back home, Letty has totaled her car and suffers a head injury in a car accident in Mexico. Sara has found the children alone and takes them back to her apartment. When she is well enough, Letty flies home with money sent by Sara.
Rejoined, the small Espinosa family of California enters their apartment. Stare at each other. What now?
So, have you, dear reader, been following along with the background of these characters? Something I guess I should have mentioned earlier in this review, the novel speaks in alternating perspectives, Letty then Alex. This becomes most interesting now that Letty is in charge.
Things at home start out about as badly as you expect. Alex is very nervous and wary of his mother. How do you trust someone that has ignored you all your life, is an alcoholic, and has recently abandoned you without a thought? Letty wants to start over but the hurdles are high. Luna is ready to love and be loved. As I see it, it is time for Letty to put on her big girl panties and get her act together.
She knows she needs to sober up, take charge of the household, bring in the bacon, and raise the kids. She stumbles and fails as much as she succeeds but progress incrementally with the help of a friend from work. She handles some things well and does poorly with others. Single moms will relate to the scenes with child care issues.
Alex is not sure his Mom has the ability to pull off the Mother gig. He needs adult guidance and supervision. After getting stewed with his Mom one night, he’s not sure she is the best one for the job. But who else is around to help? Is it time to find your father and see if he’s up to the task? Digging around, Alex finds his father and enlists his friend, Yesenia, in a stealth campaign to discover more about him before approaching him. Alex and Yesenia are not the best private eyes and his father, Wes, shows up at the apartment with the question, Say…Letty..do I have a son I don’t know about?
So enter the vacant father into the story and one more issue for Letty to face. She has to start with explaining why she never in 15 years told Wes he had a son.
Here’s where I get a little annoyed.
The friend at work becomes the boyfriend and is deeply involved with the children. Letty knows that he has a secret about his life as he dresses too fancy for a bartender in a middle class neighborhood. Now that Alex’s father is hanging around the house, she just might still love him too. Decisions. Decisions.
Out of the blue she finds out that Rick, the boyfriend, comes from a rich family with contacts and friends in high places. Very convenient when she enrolls Alex into a snobby school and needs to find a place to live in an area she can’t afford.
And then there’s Wes, the doctor, jumping straight into Alex’s life. When Alex makes a terrible decision that results in his girlfriend finding out that she is an undocumented immigrant and is taken away by ICE, Wes and the boyfriend, Rick, are there battling for Letty, Alex, and Yesenia.
What would I like to have seen handled differently?
- More discussion on illegal immigration. We see it from Yesenia’s point of view but Diffenbaugh has Carmen, Yesenia’s mom cowering while other take up the battle for her. I would like to hear more from her.
- I would like to have seen Letty progress toward recovery in a more mature fashion. There are so many roadblocks that constantly appear in her way. Life can be unfair, but Letty could have matured faster and be less unsympathetic and needy.
- Elena and Enrique play such a significant role in the children’s lives. Alex, in particular, has become a resilient, intelligent, and responsible young adult. Why did Letty turn out the way she did?
- The boy friend, Rick, struck me as too involved with the kids, particularly Luna. Why did Letty, once again, let someone else comfort her child?
- Too many issues! Phew.
I liked the story. I would have preferred a little less drama and more in-depth coverage of specific issues such as immigration, unprotected sex and the lack of sex education, and the varying styles of parenting.
Bottom line: If you liked Language With Flowers, you will enjoy this book too. Would I recommend it to my book club? Sure thing.