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BOOK REVIEW : Woman’s Coming of Age in Mexico : MEXICAN BOLERO<i> by Angeles Mastretta translated by Ann Wright</i> Viking $19.95, 268 pages

Sometimes, when a critic is crazy about a book, he or she will say that it is “well imagined.”

That probably means that the book presents a world so far from the critic’s own that the critic can only “imagine” it. Who knows--from the jacket blurb--how much Angeles Mastretta imagined of this life, or how much she knew, perhaps from old family stories?

The photograph of the author on the book jacket is stunning, and enigmatic. A line from this same book jacket says, “For the past 12 years she has devoted herself to journalism and literature in the foolish belief that what happens in Mexico is her business.” “Mexican Bolero,” translated by the very able Ann Wright from the original “arrancame la Vida,” may not be everybody’s favorite.

And again, in that curious gender split that seems sometimes to occur in contemporary literature, some powerful men may feel better going off to plot things with their cronies than picking up this volume. Even sensitive men might want to stay away from this one. But for women with brains, or anyone at all interested in Latin America, this book is a find, a golden nugget, a kaleidoscope, a day at the beach.

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The translator has included a time line here; a short history of the Mexican Revolution, and a glossary of words, phrases, dishes, holidays--all words in Spanish that cannot readily be rendered into English.

Against this carefully prepared background of the Revolution, we read the amazingly terrific story of Catalina Guzman, a 15-year-old schoolgirl in the town of Puebla, who is courted and then married by Andres Ascencio, a local caudillo or strongman, a kind of free-lance general of his region, who rules with rough terror: " . . . The saying went that the streets of Puebla were designed by the angels and paved with the minced bodies of the governor’s enemies.”

Catalina learns about her husband little by little. She learns that he’s known for his 500 crimes and his 50 mistresses. She gets several of his children from previous “marriages” dumped on her. She has two children of her own. She sees a few people murdered with her own eyes, and more than a few times she confronts her husband with these injustices. She knows he’s ruining the peasants and building up a huge private fortune. But two other equal truths prevail. Catalina kind of likes the guy. Andres can make her laugh. She can talk to him; he can talk to her. They understand each other, sort of. The second truth (which may irritate the feminists) is that Catalina is coming from a whole other place in this story.

She has her father and her sisters and her girlfriends filling her life; the scandals and the stories of everyone dear to her. She’s the one who puts together the endless dinner parties; she watches the wives of other politicians put on fur coats, in Mexico, in July. She must befriend the servants, and somehow get the word out to the people of Puebla that even if her husband is a sociopathic murderer, she, Catalina, is a very nice woman.

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At a level so profound it’s scary, Catalina thinks, like her creator, that “What goes on in Mexico is her business,” but that how these craven power freaks (during the years 1929-1946) pile up their mistresses and their fortunes is far too boring to pay attention to.

Catalina must look out for her own life; her own children--keep track of the mistresses and the crimes, but keep track of her girlfriends too, and make sure that she steals at least a few hours for herself--during the afternoon, in that lull between a political lunch and another fancy political dinner, when the hum of a well-run house and cared-for children and busy servants calm the heads of these houses into a brandy-nap.

At that time, the cunning, subversive, beautiful wives can steal away--to gossip or laugh or even fall in love. Catalina’s whole life is an act of witty defiance: If you’re interested in this mindset, you’ll really love this book.

NEXT: Wanda Urbanska reviews “Once There Was a Farm” by Virginia Bell Dabney (Random House).


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