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Flip over the book you’ve been reading and take a look at the descriptive phrases that adorn the back cover. I’m such a strange brew of optimism and skepticism, especially as a reader, so words like “potent,” “wise,” or “beautifully rendered” don’t faze me much. As a writer, however, I am ever the optimist, believing in possibility—I cannot wait to be charmed. Monica Trasandes’ Broken Like This is a novel that reads like a “poem-oir,” an alchemy of memoir and poetry.
I am dying to tell you everything about this story, but I can’t. Judging from the debates at my dinner table, each reader will have a somewhat altered experience of the characters, cities and connections in it. To reveal too much of this affecting narrative would not be fair to you. Here’s what I can share. What I find moving or riveting causes another to groan in frustration, making each experience singular and personal. That singularity works to Monica Trasandes’ advantage, for example, as the novel ranges across Spain, San Francisco, Brazil and Los Angeles. What might devolve into a confusing and unnecessary whirl of exposition is for Trasandes a tour de force. She proffers no meandering lines about what each city is like, but seamlessly immerses us in how it is, the way things work with Madrileños, among young prostitutes in the Pelhourinho, the constructed cool of San Francisco tech giants, or the endless hustle that is L.A. Our individual experiences of these cities is what makes her own rendering so vivid.
We quickly come to know her three central characters, Kate and Angela and Louis, and the defining moments that have locked them together. She introduces a number of lesser characters, all multi-dimensional and fully imagined, which could get confusing for a reader, but in the author’s capable hands
What is astonishing is Trasandes ability to chronicle events of deep intensity and weight with the lightest possible touch, not a humorous voice, simply blazingly well written. On page four, an audible, appreciative “Whoa” escaped my throat. Page four!!
“There are so many sounds: their car horn, long and beseeching, yet resigned to its futility; tires screaming as they fight to keep hold of the asphalt; metal biting metal…”
It doesn’t stop there. This writer crafts sentence after gorgeous sentence, re-constructing sometimes harrowing events with an artful simplicity that any writer knows is never simple.
Truth? I struggled with the title, and the concept of being “broken.” Initially, I disliked the choice of third person present tense. My only quibble for the release version is that there were several editing or even translation issues that I hope will be cleaned up—it was the only moment of distraction in 328 pages, a couple of loose ends, easy to rectify.
Trasandes asks the ultimate question, the one this novel, and oh, so much more, is built upon:
“How can one person you haven’t seen in so long, from whom so many things have allegedly distanced you, still make you feel this way?”
I might add: for better or for worse. At my house, this unforgettable book had us walking into rooms to say, “And you know what really gets me, about that book?” In Broken Like This, I am unaware until I have finished that I have been breathlessly hoping. What for, I cannot even elucidate here. When I did leap ahead of Trasandes in my head, I was usually wrong, and left stunned by where she led me, awed at her manipulation of events, the language, and my hopes.
By page four I had forgotten my present tense objections, because that tense structure, when applied to events that I knew were in the past, had me in Trasandes’ suspenseful grip, for there is great suspense and tension in this narrative. As she articulates for the reader what broken like this feels like, and how it shapes or constricts or frees us, affects entire lives we may not even sense, we know how this story will remain in us, in the best possible way. How valiant, how brave is Monica Trasandes—how courageous are we—in spite of our breakages, for living and loving at all.
Broken Like This
By Monica Trasandes
Thomas Dunne Books
Hardcover, 9781250006837, 336 pp.