Vida by Patricia Engel
For me, reading Patricia Engel’s Vida was a little like looking at a Lichtenstein. It reminded me of standing in the gallery of a breathless museum, atop creaky hardwood floors, observing forceful dots of color making a starkly beautiful painting -- all the while I registered that sentimental love was something sweet, but inescapably counterfeit.
In Vida, Engel steers away from romance. Like Lichtenstein, Engel has managed a complex portrayal of both wanting to believe in love while remaining darkly mocking of it. The stories in this debut leap from present to past, and they appear to have nothing in common except Sabina, their narrator (a New Jersey girl born to Colombian “new money immigrants”); however, as inventories of the women and men that have touched Sabina, these stories not only reveal each of its subjects, but in the sum of their parts they form an intense portrayal of Sabina herself.
These stories are portraits of immigrants in America. There is Paloma, Sabina’s aunt, diagnosed with cancer and stationed in the family living room, homesick for Colombia and spreading a grave silence across the house; Diego, who shares an apartment in Miami with fifteen other illegal immigrants fleeing the Argentine economic collapse, all sleeping in one room on eight mattresses; Vida, a former Colombian beauty queen who is sold into prostitution by her hairdresser; and Lucho, the narrator’s best friend, with whom Sabina waits out her high school captivity smoking cigarettes by the river, coolly ignoring the more serious trouble at home: Lucho’s violent stepfather, and Sabina’s uncle, who is being tried for murder.
Sabina turns to love -- cynically -- during her most critical moments. In “Refuge,” the second of this novel in stories, Sabina finds herself going to sleep with her boyfriend, the night after September 11, 2001. “We tuck into each other like origami,” Sabina tells us, “fall asleep like captive hamsters, our lips touching, pretending we’re each other’s reasons for surviving the cataclysm.” Pitch-perfect, Engel moves easily between Sabina’s learned nonchalance and unruffled longing.
But it is Sabina’s rash frankness that is perhaps the strongest facet of the work. At times callous and cruel, Sabina tells us when she befriends Vida (Vida was then stuck in anonymity and illegal status in Miami), “My friend Jess would say it was the freak factor that drew me to Vida. That she was a novelty act for me, a living movie complete with exploitation of Latinas. There was also the vanity element, that, in her, I saw a parallel life, one that my mother always imagined aloud: the What if we had stayed to live in Colombia? narrative.” Leveled with charm and muted nostalgia, Sabina’s frank, swindling countenance is, after all, powerfully disarming.
Engel paints a wide portrait of immigrants, undocumented workers, and foreigners from gritty New York to class-conscious Bogotá and the club scene in Miami. Love happens without being wanted or attempted, and what is revealed throughout this collection is a link of Sabina’s missed connections. In “Vida,” the seventh story in this book, Engel poses the question of love:
Vida asked me if I still believed in love. Asked me as if it was something like Papá Noel or El Coco, an imaginary creature sent to taunt us as kids and inspire fantasies. I shook my head and it hurt my heart a little to do so.
“Me neither,” she said with a pride that I wanted for myself.
Near the end of the story, Vida will proclaim, “There is no love. Only people living life together. Tomorrow will be better.” It's an appropriate summation for this great debut.
Vida by Patricia Engel