Palma Piedras is forty-two, just divorced, and back in the U.S. after several years in Colombia, where her now ex-husband had tried to make her into a traditional South American wife while he plied the family (drug) trade. The grandmother who raised her while the parents she can’t remember picked produce in Southern California is dead (not that her being alive would have made much of a difference, since their relationship was at best irascible). Palma’s got no relatives she knows of other than her deadbeat uncle, who’s letting Abuela’s house rot around him, and her charismatic, problematic cousin Pepito, who’s just finished ten years in prison, and with whom she shares a problematic sexual tension.
This is the fraught beginning of Give it to Me, the latest novel by Ana Castillo, the doyenne of Chicana writers. Palma, like so many of Castillo’s characters, embodies a cultural borderland. She’s from a Mexican family but born and raised in the U.S. And as a bisexual with a history of turbulent relationships she was never likely to become a traditional Chicana madre. But as a girl who clawed and worked her way out of the barrio and through college using every tool at her disposal (including her body) Palma doesn’t identify with middle-class American society (the Mulches, as she calls them, the gringos with their SUVs, immaculate lawns and blinkered lives) either. No matter where Palma is, she’s always on la Frontera.
Palma simultaneously tries to deal with the emotional turbulence of having Pepito back in her life (albeit mostly through texting and sexting), re-establish herself financially, and deal with the angst of entering her forties. Then a chance to be a movie extra sets in motion a series of misadventures of escalating outrageousness. When she discovers a cache of letters among her grandmother’s belongings, she is forced to re-think almost everything she had taken as a given about her family.
Give It to Me is a postmodern Latino picaresque, uproariously funny but punctuated by moments of heartbreak. Palma Piedras is a tough, empathetic survivor. As a woman who’s always identified as beautiful and used sex both as a tool and as a way to compensate for feeling unloved, she’s bitterly facing the sexual double-standard on looks and aging: “Middle-aged guys… despite erectile dysfunction, balding, paunches… managed to get some woman’s attention. And society thought it okay.” And she’s also facing the midlife sadness that knows no gender, the sense of doors closed and chances lost (colored, of course, by her distinctive past):
By forty, if you hadn’t gotten in the game, you never would… The game of beating the rest at whatever you did best. What had Palma Piedras ever done best? Nothing that could be mentioned in polite company… she was stumbling through her forties like a shot, bewildered, deer. If she had fought for dreams, goals or aspirations in her thirties, she couldn’t remember them now. When she thought about the future it looked like the surface of Mars or a Wal-Mart parking lot. Hostile and non-trekable. Holy Cow. Her problem wasn’t being forty plus. She had become a Nihilist Mulch.
And there we see it all: a sense of the mistakes she’s made and the plans she hasn’t, coupled with that clear-eyed self-awareness that offers her a salvation of sorts, that gives her the strength to stop looking back and keep going.
15 years ago a reviewer for the New York Times stated that Castillo was a better storyteller than a writer, and unfortunately that’s still the case. She uses trite phrases, makes stabs at humor that fall flat, and makes basic narrative mistakes. After a visit to her grandmother’s house, Palma describes herself as “worn out from her trip down memory lane.” Memory lane? The finest writers slip easily between the voice of the author and that of the character. But the problem with Give it to Me is that memory lane is not only too much of a cliché for an author, it’s also too much of a cliché for Palma Piedras: it’s a Mulch thing to say.
And personally I don’t find language from Warner Bros. cartoons and cereal commercials (Heavens to Murgatroyd! Tricks are for kids.) particularly effective at describing sexual arousal or orgasms—even as a sort of bawdy joke. Castillo totally blows what could have been a sad and sexy scene: when a guy Palma’s interested in drops by her house to have the “it’s not going to happen” chat, Castillo waits until halfway through the conversation to mention that Palma’s nearly naked. As a narrative surprise it just doesn’t work.
Fortunately there’s enough in Give it to Me that actually does work for the reader to forgive such missteps and happily follow Palma’s misadventures. Scenes of genuine poignancy intersperse moments of pure comedy. Castillo makes us care about Palma. We feel the sadness of her leaving home at 18 with her clothes packed in garbage bags and her grandmother yelling at her to never come back, and we laugh at lines like “infelicitous fellatio fiasco” and dialogue such as “What’s wrong with you Miss Thing? You tried to drown that woman? After she bought you a fucking Mercedes?”
Give it to Me is a flawed but eminently enjoyable, bittersweet romp.