16 June 2009

Review: Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea

In northern Mexico, the notorious girlfriends of the dusty, dying town of Tres Camarones work a variety of part-time jobs so they can buy clothes and makeup and go to the movies. After celebrating Tia Irma's victory as the town's first woman mayor, Nayeli realizes that the only close male companionship she, Yolo, and Vampi have is Tacho, the gay owner of the so-called Internet café. The men have all gone to that paradise known as the United States.

How will the town protect itself? And how can the young women date and marry? Nayeli decides to follow the example provided by the movie The Magnificent Seven, starring Mexico's favorite actor, Yul Brynner. She will go to America and bring back seven of her countrymen to protect the town and revive the population. And while she's there, she will find her father and bring him back home.

When Yolo, Vampi, Tacho, and Nayeli leave their familiar Tres Camarones, they are ill-equipped and unprepared to survive Mexico, let alone to cross the border and find help.

From the nightmarish bus trip through Mexico to the bittersweet drive across America, Urrea's skill as a storyteller shines, especially when he focuses on the spunky Nayeli. The plight of the truly poor who live in the towns just south of the border was heartbreakingly portrayed. And it was particularly interesting to see the people, culture, and geography of the States through the eyes of a new arrival.

Unfortunately, the circumstances that motivated the friends to set off on their desperate quest are underdeveloped and thus it was difficult to buy the premise. Some of the side stories lacked sufficient depth and became tangents rather than additions to Nayeli's journey. There was quite a bit of Spanish in the book, and readers unfamiliar with the language may not fully understand several passages. And, finally, the climax of Nayeli's cross-country trip was a letdown, either as a result of her choices or because her reactions were left to the reader's imagination, or perhaps a bit of both.

There is, however, a lot to like about Into the Beautiful North. Nayeli and Tacho were sympathetic characters, and Nayeli's intelligence, bravery, and determination were admirable. Although parts of the book focused on the difficult and sometimes horrific conditions for a particular segment of the Mexican population, the novel is not without humor, and this is another of Urrea's strengths.

Despite the flaws of Into the Beautiful North, I was not disappointed in Urrea as an author. He has written several other books—both fiction and nonfiction—as well as three collections of poetry. I recommend exploring this author's works.

Luis Alberto Urrea has a website where you can learn more about his books and watch a moving video about Into the Beautiful North.

Published by Little, Brown, 2009
ISBN-13: 9780316025270
Challenges: A-Z author, New Author, 999, 100+
YTD: 45
Rating: B


bermudaonion 6/16/09, 12:33 PM  

I'm sorry you didn't like this one as much as I did!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 6/16/09, 1:09 PM  

I started this book (was all excited about it) and then never finished it. I was disappointed as well :(

Julie P. 6/16/09, 1:39 PM  

Hmmmm...Your review does give me some things to think about. I'm not entirely sure that the author was going for reality in parts of their adventure. I'd love to ask him! :) But I agree that the writing was beautiful!

Unknown 6/16/09, 1:42 PM  

This is such a good review! I feel I know exactly what it is about, and you describe it's flaws so well, without being nasty. I don't think I'll be interested in this one, but it is great to know why - thanks!

Anonymous,  6/16/09, 2:32 PM  

When I saw this on my reader, I was like "hey, deja vu?" because I'd read Bermudaonion's earlier today :-D It's always good to get differing opinions on a book, and your review gives a good rounded view of the book, particularly about the Spanish parts.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) 6/16/09, 5:42 PM  

I just read bermudaonion's review, so it's funny you'd also post a review on the same day! I think the book still sounds pretty interesting, but thanks for the note on the Spanish. That might have frustrated me if I didn't know about it ahead of time.

Melody 6/16/09, 8:03 PM  

Great review, Beth!
I'm not sure if I'd read this, but I'll be sure to check out other books by this author.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) 6/17/09, 12:46 AM  

I love the cover to this book. At some point I would like to give it a try.

The Reading Momster 6/17/09, 2:56 AM  

At least the book cover is beautiful :)

S. Krishna 6/17/09, 10:37 AM  

Great review. I think you balanced the positives and negatives very well!

Literary Feline 6/17/09, 5:18 PM  

Thanks for your great review, Beth. I had not heard of this author before I met him at a book festival in April. He's got a great sense of humor and his book sounded really interesting. I couldn't resist picking up a copy while there. I still haven't read it yet though.

I'm always glad to hear the negative with the positive--it helps with my own expectactions when reading a book.

Kari 6/30/09, 9:32 AM  

I got this book at BEA, and I'm looking forward to reading it (though I can't say I'm looking forward to the Spanish, since I only know how to count to ten in the language). Thanks for the balanced review!

Anna 7/7/09, 12:31 PM  

I have this on audio, but I haven't listened to it yet. Sorry the book was a bit disappointing for you. I'm looking forward to giving it a go.

Diary of an Eccentric

claire 8/24/09, 5:05 PM  

I just read this and feel much the same as you. I agree about the Spanish. I did love those parts because it was fun seeing how my native tongue compared to the Spanish from which it was derived, but that for those unfamiliar, a lot would have been lost.

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