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High school student Shai (pronounced Shy) doesn’t mind that the love of her life, Marlena, is closeted. They have shared a love neither of them can imagine being without, despite the intrusion of Rick, whom Marlena’s Puerto Rican family thinks is her perfect match. On Shai and Marlena’s second anniversary—which falls on the last day of school—Shai can’t resist reading Marlena’s explicit text messages while in class, thrilled and excited by them as she hides her cell phone behind a textbook. Until the teacher (Fart Face) catches Shai and reads the messages in their entirety to the class.
She’s dragged down to the principal (Mrs. Superior Sicko)’s office, and Shai’s mother is called. The principal, teacher, and her mother demand to know who sent the messages, believing the sender is a girl from the same school. Luckily, Marlena goes to a different school and Shai persists in protecting Marlena. When Shai’s mother locks her out of the house, only her best friend Soledad, and her mother Viva (who both know her secret) come to the rescue. When Shai finds out that Rick arrives to visit Marlena on the same day, she feels overwhelmed.
Mayra Lazara Dole’s novel of a young Cuban lesbian’s journey to independence in Miami has the solid ring of reality. This is a portrayal of one girl’s potential – probable? – truth. As such, the emotional experience for the reader is one of heartache, strength, love, the true meaning of friendship, and a determination to trust and believe in one’s self.
To detail Shai’s journey would detract for the emotional impact of the story. The main themes center around Shai’s familial love for her mother and younger brother, Pedri, with whom she will go to extremes to maintain their relationship; the intricacies of relationships; and, learning to understand the true meanings of friendship and love. Yet, Dole effectively touches on much more: cultural conflicts regarding perspectives of lesbianism; economic class distinctions; family structures and influences; as well as others, that may well urge the reader to a second or third reading of the novel.
Down to the Bones is a complex, complicated and stirring tale. Dole has a way with metaphors and comparisons that bring life and richness to her writing. The depictions of her characters create instantaneous emotional connections. Dole’s use of Hispanic terminology lends an authenticity to her writing; and for her non-Hispanic readers, she provides a glossary in the back of the book. Occasionally there are problems in following the dialogue, and some transitions from scene to scene feel abrupt. Pedri functions as a key character to understanding Shai’s personality, and tracking his role throughout the multiple story lines may have enhanced his position in the storylines.
Down to the Bone is an exceptional contribution to the young adult, multicultural, LGBTQ and the general reading public.
Down to the Bone
By Mayra Lazara Dole
Harper Teen 2008/Bella Books 2012
Paperback, 9781594933172, 261 pp.
June 2012 (2nd edition)