Désirée Zamorano’s third novel, The Amado Women, is an unflinchingly honest look at family relationships and the joys, sorrows, and ultimately unshakable love in these ties that bind. Like A Day Late and A Dollar Short and other work by the late Bebe Moore Campbell, The Amado Women fills a need for female-driven novels of substance, humor, and well-drawn family relationships. The novel opens with the 60th birthday of matriarch Mercedes Amado, known as Mercy. In attendance are her eldest daughter Celeste, who has flown into Los Angeles from her hideaway in San Jose, Mercy’s middle and only married daughter Sylvia, and Mercy’s youngest daughter Nataly. Nataly and Celeste are not speaking because of a grudge Nataly holds against Celeste, but the three daughters manage to enjoy a wonderful celebration with their mother.
Relationships are messy things, and the sisters only skim the surface when they spend time with each other and their mother. Otherwise Sylvia would have to face the truth about her seemingly perfect marriage to a man who beats her and her daughters. Nataly would have to face her irrational anger at Celeste, her stalled career, and her cycle of unavailable, toxic men. And Celeste would have to acknowledge that she has shut down in the cold, emotionless world of her job ever since the death of her firstborn daughter over a decade ago.
Unable to move forward, the Amado girls flounder. And their mother wonders what it was she did that keeps them from living their lives to the fullest. Sylvia reaches out tentatively to Celeste for help, but then sinks her head back in the sand. Nataly runs away from the chance to have her first art show in New York and takes up with a married man instead. And Celeste rejects yet another man’s interest, burying herself deeper in her work. When Sylvia’s youngest daughter is hospitalized for a serious illness, the sisters have another chance to reconnect, but they botch it. “‘Fuck you and your attitude and your money,’” Nataly cries, ending her tirade against Celeste, minutes before they are to enter the hospital room. When Nataly appears alone, Sylvia asks, “‘Where’s the rest of you?’” “‘We got into a fight on the way down,’” says Nataly. Sylvia replies, “‘Well, that’s progress… I didn’t know you two talked enough to argue.’” This exchange is vintage Zamorano, lightening an intense moment—a sick child, a hospital—with a beat of laughter to give the reader air.
But when Sylvia finally gains the courage to leave her husband, her actions set off a chain of events that force each of the Amado women to admit the broken parts of themselves and begin to heal.
While the Amado women are impressive, the men in the novel do not show up so well. Both Papa Amado and Jack Levine, Sylvia’s husband, cheat on their wives, beat their wives, steal money from their wives, and consume way too many addictive substances. Nataly’s latest love interest is a cheater as well. In a way, that is the point—that the cycle of abuse set in place by the previous generation must be broken by the daughters. “‘Let’s say Jack slapped Sylvia around… they wouldn’t have been the first married couple,’” says Mercy, reflecting on her own marriage.
Set in the diverse, yet racially segregated world of Los Angeles, the novel manages to use the city organically as a powerful character while showcasing the various lives that are lived there. In a drive of less than 30 minutes, you can experience completely different languages, faiths, economics, and realities. Moving between spaces becomes a larger theme in the novel, as each of the Amado women seeks the courage to—literally—propel herself from one stage of her life to the next.
The Amado Women is a fast-paced novel that manages the rare feat of being both entertaining and heartfelt. In Désirée Zamorano’s gifted hands, these women come alive. They are women you know, women who are immensely relatable. You understand their ever-so-human failures and you root for them to succeed. A haunting, well-crafted story from a novelist at the peak of her powers.