Book Review: Holiday Heart

“By this point, Lucía knew that her argument was falling apart, that the things she was saying were only distantly connected to what she’d read. She simply wanted to say them, and it seemed like a good opportunity to do so.”

Holiday Heart, by Margarita García Robayo (translated by Charlotte Coombe), is the story of a crumbling marriage. It opens on Miami beach where Lucía and her young children – twins, Rosa and Tomás – are watching the Fourth of July fireworks. They arrived earlier in the day to spend a fortnight at Lucía’s parents’ holiday apartment where they will be looked after by Cindy, an American of Cuban descent. Lucía and her husband, Pablo, are Columbian immigrants – educated and financially successful but hankering after an elusive satisfaction in the life they lead.

Pablo has recently suffered heart issues which brought to light his infidelities. He remains at their home in New Haven, recuperating. His actions, though, are secondary to resentments that have been bubbling to the surface for years. Pablo and Lucía goad each other with both their silences and conversation. They try to be good parents but neither of them truly enjoys being with their children.

“She wondered if giving birth to a child and just abandoning it to its fate – whether as the decision of a Spartan parent or out of necessity or tradition – would hurt less than giving birth to it only to neurotically monitor the area surrounding it every day: that diminutive, infinite space filled with dreadful and uncontrollable dangers.”

Pablo, a teacher, is writing a novel. Having read through the manuscript, Lucía accuses him of yearning for his homeland – something she regards with derision. The reader is offered snapshots of his past through interactions with his wider family. For them, making a life in America is regarded as a success in itself.

Lucía writes a column for a magazine in which she is highly critical of her husband, claiming artistic licence when Pablo complains. He feels that he lost her when the twins were born and Lucía took the reins in how they would be raised. On holiday at Miami Beach, the children have more fun with Cindy than they do with their mother. She views the friendly young woman as trashy but is jealous of her easy affinity with the youngsters, especially Rosa. Both Pablo and Lucía are critical of many aspects of demeanour they observe in other immigrants.

“His shirt is tucked in and he wears a blue suit jacket that screams cheap. Bad taste in clothes is the last sign of an impoverished background to disappear. Sometimes it never leaves. Almost all of the high school teachers are of Latino descent: they are the sons and daughters of technicians, plumbers, maids, supermarket cashiers. Getting an education, unlike their parents, doesn’t make them any less rough around the edges, if anything the contrary.”

The key lives portrayed are brimming with dissatisfaction making this a rather bleak tale to engage with. The writing style is taut and flowing but neither Pablo nor Lucía elicit sympathy – their actions appearing foolish and weak. I was left curious as to the veracity in terms of the immigrant experience: if assimilation creates a disconnect, if expectations can ever be met. Pablo ponders the life his unmarried aunt, Lety, has chosen for herself, unable to understand how she can be content when her job is running a launderette. It is, perhaps, because neither Pablo nor Lucía can find the joy in what they already have that I struggled to empathise.

A well structured and written tale but not one I especially enjoyed reading. Maybe the insular and stifling reflections of the privileged characters were not the best choice for me given current lockdown economic concerns and restrictions.

Holiday Heart is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li, is set within the Chinese immigrant community of Maryland, USA. Jimmy and Johnny Han run the Duck House restaurant having inherited it from their late father, Bobby. He established the popular eatery, thereby making the family fortune. Long time employees, Nan and Ah-Jack, continue to work the long, punishing hours required despite their advancing years as they struggle to support their dependents. Nan’s seventeen year old son, Pat, has recently been expelled from school so now works a lowly job at the restaurant where his mother can keep an eye on him. Ah-Jack’s wife has cancer so he must cover her medical bills.

When the story opens Johnny is in Hong Kong and Jimmy is scheming to abandon the Duck House and open his own restaurant. To fund this he has turned to the wily Uncle Pang who is an associate of the Han family. It was Uncle Pang who helped Bobby set up his restaurant. Now he is offering a similar deal to the son, which would put Jimmy in debt to a man whose tentacles he would prefer to escape.

Pat is attracted to Annie, Johnny’s daughter. Both resent that the restaurant demands their parents’ time and attention and that now they are expected to work there. When Uncle Pang offers Pat a heap of money to carry out a small but illegal task, Pat takes Annie along to enjoy the spectacle. Things don’t go as they anticipated and the two young people are sucked into events that will horrify both them and their parents.

Sibling rivalry and a deep seated need to prove themselves drive Jimmy and Johnny to pursue their personal agendas. They still need the family money and this means involving their mother who now lives alone in her dusty mansion. The sons underestimate her strength and influence, reluctantly turning to each other, as they have always done, to cope with the challenges they end up bringing down on themselves.

Meanwhile Nan and Ah-Jack must finally deal with an attraction they have felt for each other since they first met. Pat needs his mother more than ever but she is distracted. Annie cannot fathom how to gain support from her father who has given up trying to interact with his truculent teenager. Wrapped up in their own concerns the parents do not notice as their children unravel.

This is a story of the resentments and ties of a demanding family that has mythologised its own success and expectations. It skilfully portrays the disconnect between generations who understand each other only in relation to themselves. Little is told of those who do not frequent the restaurant – it serves as a microcosm of the society and culture being portrayed.

The writing flows around a plot that offers a sticky, dark humour alongside the characters’ self inflicted difficulties. Although the supporting cast felt largely two-dimensional, serving to demonstrate key players’ continuing self-absorption, they added to the colour and shades of the depiction. I found it hard to like the protagonists but their situation is written with a degree of sympathy.

This was an interesting if not always satisfying read offering a window into the world of immigrants and their offspring. I enjoyed the insights offered of the inner workings of a busy restaurant. Mostly though it is a story of family that is universal.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One (an imprint of Pushkin Press).