In the opening pages of Kate Braverman’s first novel, Lithium for Medea (1979), it became clear that the young woman narrator had never been able to handle her feelings for her mother, a successful executive, or for her father, whose first bout with cancer during her childhood had destroyed her sense of security, and who, as the novel began, was rapidly approaching death from a second attack. Critics had difficulty finding sympathy for the self-pitying narrator, who had first married and supported an impotent perpetual student, then subsided into drugged indolence as the puppet of a sadistic lover. Instead, they praised the characters of the parents; even if they were not meant to be sympathetic, they were. Unlike their whining daughter, the parents rose to the occasion, as they had always done. The father suffered gamely and died without whimpering. The mother, even though divorced, supported him with her strength.
In Palm Latitudes, once again Braverman has produced very real characters, but this second novel benefits from the absence of a self-indulgent narrator who is marooned in a late adolescence. Instead, the story of life in the East Los Angeles barrio is told from the vantage point of three women, each of whom represents a different female role but all of whom have difficulties with men.
The title of the novel suggests that the environment of the three central characters is not limited to Flores Street in East Los Angeles. As Braverman explains, the “palm latitudes” extend from Miami and Los Angeles through the Caribbean and Central America. In essence, they are the tropical, Hispanic world, a world which is dominated by men who can respect themselves only if they demean women. If the women are whores, they must be degraded and deserted; if the women are wives, they must be suppressed to the level of useful appliances, and they will probably be deserted in the end.
Although Braverman’s stories are set in present-day Los Angeles, the past events that her characters relive are continually shaping their present decisions and reactions. Francisca Ramos, the mysterious prostitute, has learned to be independent from men in her own way after experiencing a life as a cherished mistress and a life as a wife.
It was Ramón Cárdenas, a wealthy Colombian businessman with an American wife, who made the twenty-one-year-old Francisca into his own art object. From him she learned about food, clothing, perfume, books, art, and music. He taught her to despise everything that was ugly, cheap, or unfashionable, even the poor people whom she saw from their limousine, poor people like those among whom she had been born. Finally, however, tormented by the fact that he was beginning to need her, he brutalized her, perhaps to punish her for being important to him. Somehow he had to make her see herself as a creature whose value was totally dependent on his approval. Desperately in love with him, she did not protest. Then, without warning, he paid her off and sent her away. He had made it impossible for her ever to be contented with anything but the finest; he had crippled her emotionally; he had left her determined never again to give up her self to any man.
Francisca’s subsequent attempt at marriage was doomed from the first. Because she had run out of Ramón’s money, Francisca was forced to marry a poor man, who adored her and at first tried to please her. Before long, however, it became clear that he was really in love with an image, and that whenever she behaved differently from what he expected, he would treat her badly. At this point, Francisca was faced with the choice that she had concluded every woman must make: either to act the part that would please her man or to leave him and become completely independent. She swore never to be tamed, and she fled. From that time on, she made her living as a prostitute, but the men who used her body were given only that. None of them knew her thoughts, her memories, or even her name.
From childhood, Gloria Hernández was merely the husk of a person. Abandoned by her father, then by her mother, she grew up without love. When she married Miguel Hernández, she felt only that she was accepting her destiny as a pack animal. Every action she performed was a pretense; inside, she was dead—a dead wife, a dead mother, dead as she cleaned her house, dead as she planted her flowers. Because the idea of change frightened her, she refused to venture outside her little world. When Miguel tried to teach her English, even when her sons were ashamed of her because she could not speak the language, Gloria refused to learn it. She remained in her own house and in her own garden, keeping everything in order.
Gloria’s tragedy began when Miguel received a disability settlement for an accident at work. As a result, he could stay around the...
(The entire section is 1988 words.)