Sunday, November 15, 2015

Book Review: We Never Asked for Wings

This book took longer for me to get through than it normally would have, simply because I acquired it in audio form and then promptly stopped walking on the treadmill (choosing instead to walk on the track where I can think about the novel I'm writing). I did bring it into the kitchen when washing the dishes, but tried not to have it on when the boys were around (not that there was a lot of bad content, but it occasionally veered into territory I didn't want their young ears to pick up). After reading Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers, I eagerly scooped up her second book, We Never Asked for Wings, when I saw it in audio form on the recent acquisitions shelf at our library.

While the story was a good one (struggling mother wanting what is best for her children and wanting to give them far more than she is capable of providing), I found it difficult to like the main character. In the beginning she is portrayed as a drunk who leaves her children home alone while she drives (drunk, remember) to find her mother who has left to follow her father back to Mexico. Although her character grows and changes, and I liked her better by the end of the tale, I still never warmed to her completely.

Letty Espinosa has been perfectly content to allow her capable mother to raise her children, Alex (age 15) and Luna (age 6). Unfortunately, when her father returns to Mexico because of a death in the family, Letty's world begins to spin out of control. Her father fails to return and her mother feels she must go to him. Letty drives her down into Mexico, but is involved in a car crash before she can return to the children she left alone. Now, back in the States, Letty must assume the position of mother when she feels most vulnerable and incapable.

With the help of a friend from work (a man she is reluctantly developing an affection for), she attempts to move the family from the poverty of "The Landing" to a more affluent neighborhood so that her brilliant son can attend a good high school with a sound science program. She is doing her best, trying to juggle the demands of work, the challenges of motherhood, and the financial needs of her parents in Mexico, when the father of her son reappears in her life, stung because he was never informed of the birth of his child.

There were a few things I felt uncomfortable with. The characters in this novel repeatedly break the law (entering illegally, lying to secure a better education for the boy, bringing a small child along to a bartending job, looting from boxes behind stores, breaking into the high school and altering computer records in an attempt to secure a better location for the boy's girlfriend, etc.) and yet all of these incidents are presented in such a way as to win the reader's affection for the characters and overlook the fact that the actions are inherently wrong. Apparently, the wrong is on the side of the demons who wish to enforce rules and standards. I don't want to say my heart strings weren't thoroughly tugged by the novel. Indeed, I found myself wanting the characters to prevail, even when they went about it in the wrong way. So, the author was certainly capable of sucking me in and making me feel horrible for the situations the characters found themselves in. I can handle characters making mistakes; I just want those characters to recognize them as mistakes and take responsibility for their actions.

Moreover, there were many unbelievable aspects to the novel. She totals her car and yet manages to get home and secure enough money to build a good life for her family. In the beginning she is an alcoholic working three jobs (how can an alcoholic even hold down one job, really?), yet suddenly she is sober, working only in the daytime while her children are in school, and making enough money to rent a place in a school district with a stellar science program. The parents in Mexico no longer need her financial assistance because they have struck it rich with the father's art, enough to finance a plane trip for Letty and the kids to come visit them in Mexico. I guess it just seemed unrealistic that money always showed up whenever there was a new need of it.

This makes it sound like I didn't like the book, but that's not true. I did enjoy the story. It was very well written. I was able to remain engrossed even though I only managed to consume the book in snippets here and there. Diffenbaugh presents lively characters with real-life problems. She paints her scenes well and infuses the writing with beautiful passages of prose. Once again, she takes an interesting topic (the migratory habits of birds and the use of their feathers for art) and fleshes it out as a support to her characters and plot. The information was fascinating and the story was full of hope and redemption. If only the book hadn't presented right as wrong and wrong as right quite so much, it would have been a thoroughly enjoyable tale.

I still think it was a very worthwhile read. Diffenbaugh is an excellent writer. She weaves her stories well and they stay with you for quite a while after you put the book down. I will keep my eye out for more from this fine author.

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