The American Dream. Many people talk about it, but no one really knows what it means. Some people work their entire lives to try and achieve it and some people succeed. Sadly, sometimes it takes death to figure out that not only you achieved the American Dream, but excelled beyond it.
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In his final days, beloved and ailing patriarch Miguel Angel De La Cruz, known affectionately as Big Angel, has summoned his entire clan for one last legendary birthday party. But as the party approaches, his mother, nearly one hundred, dies herself, leading to a farewell doubleheader.
Across one bittersweet weekend in their San Diego neighborhood, the revelers mingle among the palm trees and cacti, celebrating the lives of Big Angel and his mother, and recounting the many tales that have passed into family lore, the acts both ordinary and heroic that brought them to a fraught and sublime country and allowed them to flourish in the land they have come to call home. The story of the De La Cruzes is the American story. This indelible portrait of a complex family reminds us of what it means to be the first generation and to live two lives across one border. Teeming with brilliance and humor, authentic at every turn, The House of Broken Angels is Luis Alberto Urrea at his best, and it cements his reputation as a storyteller of the first rank.
The novel was bookended with a death and another death. The first death was Mama America, Big Angel’s mother where the family gathers in San Diego to mourn. The second death is Big Angel’s own death. However, his death isn’t a significant part of this book. The most significant part of this book is Big Angel’s birthday party, which happened the day after Mama America’s funeral.
I really liked this novel. I didn’t think I would at first because novels about the grip of life and what it all means tend to force anxiety on me. But even in the short conversations about death and the meaning of life, there was a sense that this was not about it.
I think it has to do with the fact that it was centered around a huge family gathering with Big Angel thinking about his life and what he’s accomplished. The story followed all of Big Angel’s family members in three generations. You read the bustling setting of a family gathering while each character has their own mini-story contributed to the dynamic of the family. If you’ve ever read This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper, then you’ll definitely get those vibes from this book.
Each family member had a different trait and like many families, they represent one or another diverse issue. There were the women that did everything for their husbands and made sure to take care of the entire family. There were the male characters who dabbled in drugs and gang violence. There was even a character who was only half-Mexican and you get to hear the kind of discrimination he comes across not only from his peers but from his family. There’s a little something for everyone here.
I don’t know, I feel like I saw a lot of my grandfather in Big Angel. My grandfather was definitely my family’s patriarch. When my mom and her sisters would argue, he’d be the one mediating the arguments and keeping everyone calm. He was the silent force behind my family and ever since he passed, things have been so different.
Reading about Big Angel’s final birthday was like remember my grandfather at one of our last big family gatherings. For some reason, my family is so interconnected. My best friends are my sister and my cousins. My family meet on random Sundays after church just to get lunch and be with each other. We are each other’s rocks and we’re always chatting with each other. Only a few people dared to even leave the Tri-State area and their loss has been so hard on my grandmother.
Similarly to Big Angel, my grandfather ran a coffee shop, a deli, a donut shop, and so many other small businesses to help his family stay afloat. It was exactly how Big Angel started out while he was learning computer science. He had jobs here and there, but this wasn’t the end all. He wanted more and he craved more and just like my grandfather, he got more. When my grandparents got married, they didn’t even exchange rings and when my grandfather could finally afford it, he bought my grandmother the most extravagant gifts. For example, my grandmother threw away a vintage Chanel quilted purse because it was too old. We still chastise her for throwing away something most women covet.
Also, I love Big Angel because of his push to be more than just an illegal immigrant from Mexico. I always tell myself that someone will hire me for a job because of my skillset and not because I match some quota. Big Angel did exactly that not only defying the stereotypes behind Mexican workers, but also assuring me and many other first and second generation Americans that with hard work you can still achieve your dreams.
He was such a proud character and you can tell that by the way he prides in his house. The descriptions weren’t the best and the house wasn’t in the nicest neighborhood, but Big Angel was proud to say he owned a house on American soil. I mean, that has got to be the American Dream right there.
Sadly the really confusing part was all the folks and even sometimes the writing style. Overall, I loved the way this book was written. It felt like Urrea inhabited each character as he described the scenes of Big Angel’s birthday party, but it wasn’t as streamlined as I would have preferred. One minute you’re seeing things through the eyes of Little Angel and then the next you’re reading from Paz’s point of view, and then Lalo, and then Minnie. It was kind of confusing, but once you got a swing of things you can see how the multiple narratives moved with the same stride as the massive birthday party being held.
- Hardcover, 326 pages
- Little, Brown (March 6, 2018)
- Rating: 4/5 Stars
- Buy The House of Broken Angels on Amazon
I received a copy of this book from Little, Brown for free in exchange for an honest review. My opinions have not been influenced by the publisher or the author.
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