The narrator of Judith Ortiz Cofer’s novel is Consuelo (which means one who consoles), the elder daughter in a family that is making its way into the middle class in the suburbs of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s largest city. While her father works in a hotel and admires anything modern or American, her mother stays bonded to the old island ways and to her “familia,” primarily the females who are the guardians both of tradition and morals. Milagra, or Mili, is the younger daughter, beautiful, flighty and increasingly strange.
In her early teens and burdened with watching over her little sister, Consuelo develops a sensitive awareness of her parents’ troubled marriage, her cousin Patricio’s imaginative but odd behavior (he is homosexual), and her own need for a selfhood not bound by the family’s sense of “tragedia,” a kind of island doom that she is determined to elude. Ortiz Cofer employs Spanish words in her text, but always in an appropriate and understandable fashion. Language and culture are an inimitable part of the story. Consuelo develops a crush on an attractive boy, initiates sex with him, gets shunned by her high school peers when he spreads stories (“cuentos”) about her, panics when she realizes she is an outcast, the “la fulana” of her own life, but does not succumb.
Ortiz Cofer has written a tale about a young woman who rises above her fate while her poor sister drowns in her own. If this tale is a little too predictable for some, perhaps too heavy-handed in the telling, it may be the kind of young adult story that impressionable females need to read.