The Years with Laura Díaz is Carlos Fuentes’s most recent venture into a passionate chronicle of the growing pains of his nation and its interaction with other nations. The book draws on elements from his family history—the dedication speaks of it as a book of his ancestry—with some of the characters loosely based on offspring from his family tree and stories from his family’s oral tradition. It incorporates the volatile political events and active players of the twentieth century in Mexico, the United States, and worldwide. The book is accented with the subcultures of art, architecture, and even fashion that make up the rich but flawed fabric of the time. Laura Díaz, born at the dawn of the century and gifted with a long and fecund life, is the occasion and centerpiece of the story that he tells.
Readers see the heroine’s multifaceted and colorful life through the kaleidoscope of seventy years of change: personal, cultural, political. Child Laura, born to an abundance of family and funds, is nourished behind the walls of privilege on her grandfather’s coffee plantation. The household includes her grandmother, whose courageous confrontation with a bandit results in the loss of several of her fingers to his machete. Readers meet a gaggle of aunts. Two of them carry the weight of failed aspirations to become, respectively, a writer and a celebrated pianist. These shriveling spinsters seem to epitomize an expiring past that is mother to a barren future. Laura’s other aunt, an illegitimate mulatto rescued from a life of prostitution by her grandmother, eventually trades her years of devoted service to family for dancing on painful legs as her life nears its end. Readers meet Laura’s mother, given to the tasks of hearth and home, and the grandparents, who offer advice for her future. Laura, hemmed in and defined by the predictable mores of her era and status, seems destined to model her life on the images projected by the women in her family circle. She marries and bears children, but does not find happiness, nor does she find lingering satisfaction in the series of lovers who occupy her bed and her yearnings as her marriage cools.
As the novel unfolds, the speed at which the characters enter and excite its pages increases. Relatives and friends, lovers and children come on stage, struggle through their sometimes convoluted lines, and then are quickly gone—sometimes through violent means—as the kaleidoscope shifts its colored shards. In her search for identity, Laura embraces both the bodies and the political pain of the lovers she takes. Not until she loses her last lover, an American political exile from the Senator Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950’s, and reaches the wisdom of her sixties does she emerge as an independent thinker and emancipated observer of the times rather than a passive victim of them. Only in her later years does Laura Díaz, too long the accompanying refrain to the songs of others, become a major theme in her own right.
There is a poignant scene early in the novel that perhaps expresses the kernel of the book’s message. Laura, still little more than a child, has a conversation with her dying grandmother. Cosima Kelsen reminisces about the dashing bandit who had cut off her fingers with his machete as she, then a young woman, traveled to Mexico City to buy accessories for her home in Veracruz. There is a hint that the old woman now regrets not running away with him to a life of adventure and unorthodoxy. “You should have seen what a handsome man he was, what fire, how bold he was.” She admonishes Laura that fear should not keep the younger woman from seizing opportunities as they come, since “you don’t get a second chance.” Later, at her grandmother’s funeral, Laura’s attention is diverted from the sobriety of the moment by a marvelous white crow, symbolically a call to escape the blackness of death symbolized in the funeral dress of her mother and aunts. As she views herself in the mirror, though, Laura sees little promise of a dazzling future for herself. However, promises will come true—much later. Not surprisingly, mirror images abound in the book.
Because the scope of the novel is so vast, Fuentes from time to time summarizes the action and character relationships for his readers. This is initially a helpful device, as it is easy to lose track of who has done what with whom during the five hundred pages. By the last time the author provides this aid, however, it has become intrusive. Perhaps the author had difficulty himself keeping track of characters that appear on stage for so brief a time, a blaze of light to be quickly extinguished as the action of the play moves on. Sometimes one feels that there are too many years spent with the heroine, with little happening to warrant such a meticulous journal. On the other hand, Fuentes does bring the story line of each character to some degree of closure. As the book moves to conclusion, Laura is forever running into someone from her past whose story line the author feels must be brought to conclusion—much too self-consciously like a novel.