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Women with Big Eyes, by Angeles Mastretta

May 3, 2013

Women with Big Eyes, by Angeles Mastretta.  New York : Riverhead Books, 2003.  Translated by Amy S. Greenberg.

Global Women of Color

An imaginative collection of brief accounts celebrating strong Mexican women with unconventional characteristics and desires.

Mastretta tells us about over fifty women, “aunts,” living comfortably in Puebla, Mexico, in the recent past.  Each woman is portrayed in brief passages of only a few pages.  These pieces are too short to be “short stories” and too much is happening for them to be vignettes.  They remind me most of the “fables” by Suniti Namjoshi which I read and reviewed recently.

It is not the national culture or the racial and economic situation of the aunts that captures Mestretta’s attention.  She focuses on the character of the women themselves and their dealings with those around them. Sexuality and family ties loom large in the aunts’ stories, as do concern for children, aging and death, and bonds with other women. She writes with gentle humor about each woman, pointing out what might be considered her flaws.  One of the aunts “fell in love the way intelligent women always fall in love: like an idiot.”  Another observed that “She had a sweetness that bordered on idiocy, or as Aunt Laura thought, idiocy that bordered on sweetness.”  Another of the woman was not a particularly good gossip, “Above all, it was she who discovered the point of each tangle, the exact carelessness of God that made someone ugly.”

Men often assist in the women’s flight from ordinariness, but they are far from dependable.  After an exciting affair with a man, an aunt rejected him when he talked to her about his business. She announced  “One cannot get involved in the mess of loving something prohibited, feeling it at times like a blessing, wanting it above all else–because it is impossible, because it is hopeless–and then turn it into an annex to an office.”  When one young aunt left her hometown, she carried with her “no more luggage than the future and the early certainty that the most honorable of men had a screw loose.”

The limitations which women were expected to endure were a constant hindrance for the aunts.  “The future disappears for married women.  For that reason alone, it was good to get her married.”  A woman doctor was widely criticized by her family and friends. “People thought she was half crazy, rich like all people who were gossiped about excessively, and extravagant, because it could only be extravagant to go study medicine instead of looking for a husband.”

The accounts appear in a somewhat random fashion.  Other readers, including Olduvair, found the book disconnected even though they liked her writing.  I expected to have the same response.  Instead I found the book delightful.   What captured me, and held the book together for me, was the way each of the women went after and often achieved what they wanted most in life.  The book was a declaration of so much that women want to do and be that societies everywhere forbid them from wanting, much less having.  Their dreams are not mine, but the overall effect of reading about them was strangely liberating.

I don’t agree with the translator, however, that this is a feminist book.  All the desires were too personal and were granted almost magicaly.   Feminism has encouraged women to go after their dreams, but it has also demanded larger social changes to make dreams possible for all women.  There is nothing political about these women, except they are allowed to flourish even when their behavior is unconventional.

 I recommend this book to all readers feeling the need to revel in women’s dreams that lie buried, consciously or unconsciously, in all of us. I enjoyed Mastretta’s writing style, and I look forward to finding more books by her myself.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2013 2:30 pm

    I too really loved the way the women took action in their lives. The woman who went to the sea! The woman who got herself categorized as a widow instead of an old maid!

    It’s good that the shortness of the stories didn’t bother you like it did me. Purely a matter of taste I think.

    • May 7, 2013 8:01 am

      Me, too. I probably should have said more about just how adventurous they were.

  2. May 6, 2013 3:24 pm

    Great review! I bought the book a couple of years ago but still haven’t read it. I plan to dig in over the summer.

  3. May 7, 2013 8:02 am

    You’ll find this one fun, I think. So much for the stereotype of Hispanic women being docile and passive.

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