Unique in its approach to telling the story of an enigmatic woman, author Charlotte Forbes' book, The Good Works of Ayela Linde is rich in detail and intrigue. We never hear the words of Ayela, the illegitimate daughter of a lineage of unusual woman. From the opening sentence, we are clued into the impact of the main character. Forbes deftly weaves the story of Ayela from age seventeen until her death at eighty-two through sixteen interwoven vignettes told chronologically by those who were close to her as well as those she touched fleetingly. The setting takes place in the small Mexican border town of Santa Rosalia. The story tellers include Ayela's girlhood friend, her housekeeper, the pork butcher, members of the altar guild, a travel agent, her eldest son, the family doctor, her daughter-in-law, and her granddaughter.
Forbes' writing has been compared to that of Laura Esquivel and Julia Alvarez. I would also add Isabel Allende with one departure. Magical realism does not play as prominent a role in her debut novel. Touches do exist as in descriptions of the death of Ayela's grandmother where flowers die and the scent of roses permeates the grave of a woman who many believed to be a witch. Forbes is a gifted writer who wrings out every drop of descriptive possibility. Her descriptions are vibrant and reminiscent of the above-mentioned authors, but Forbes puts her own slant on word usage. Describing the paradox of Ayela's marriage to the quiet, rich Felix—a gringo from Boston, Forbes writes, "The seeds of their fast and ending attraction grated on them."
Ayela is a beautiful, exotic, sensual, enigmatic woman, but through Forbes' words and the words of those who come in contact with her, you get a sense of a flesh and blood woman who fleetingly moves to her own inner rhythm. We are clued into this inner rhythm by the description of Ayela's birth: "...the day she dropped from her mother's womb, a howling prune of a baby, ravenous for milk that had not begun to flow and sucking a dry breast with a sense that her mother held nothing she needed." It is not only the sense that her mother held nothing she needed; Ayela walks through life with the supreme belief that "the world held nothing she needed." She does not consciously go out of her way to impact the lives of others, but her mere presence has that affect on the people she knows and encounters.
This is a stunning first novel. At first, I doubted that the method of telling the story of a main character solely by the words of others would keep me engaged or even caring about the main character. Forbes is so skillful in her craft that just the opposite occurred. Each story peeling back a layer of this complex woman yet leaving some questions unanswered. After reading the last page, I am still mesmerized about Ayela. The fact that I am tells me that this is a skillful writer who has left me wanting more.
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