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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Women Trying to Live as Best They Can : NAKED LADIES by Alma Luz Villanueva ; Bilingual Press, $22, 288 pages


"Naked Ladies" is the second novel from poet Alma Luz Villanueva, author of "The UltraViolet Sky" and "Weeping Woman: La Llorana and Other Stories." The provocative title takes its name from a type of wild flowers called Naked Ladies.

But there are enough racy scenes for the reader who may judge the book by its cover alone. In the novel, Villanueva explores a variety of relationships: interracial, heterosexual and homosexual. She approaches each with sensitivity and passion.

At the beginning of the novel we meet Alta, a 27-year-old Mexican-American woman and a mother of three. Alta is driving home when she sees a mugger trying to grab the purse of another young mother. The woman, even as she holds a baby in one hand, refuses to let go of her purse, and is screaming at the mugger. Across the street two men stand and do nothing as the woman struggles. Impulsively, Alta turns the wheels of her car and quickly rams her bumper into the man. He lets go of the purse and limps away.

The would-be victim, Katie, befriends Alta. And although she is white and well-off, and Alta is poor and Mexican-American, the two share the experience of being in abusive marriages as well as being young mothers. Across the boundaries, a friendship is formed.

During their first dinner together, with both of their families, Katie and Alta talk in the kitchen, while their husbands watch sports in the living room. As Doug, Katie's husband, continually summons the women to get him beers, both women grow more exasperated. " 'Here, give me the blessed beers so I can baptize him,' " says Alta, clearly the brave one. " 'So you can what?' " asks Katie. Alta goes into the living room, opens a beer and pours it over Doug's head. As Doug jumps into the shower, the women collapse in laughter. Race and economic class mean nothing when it boils down to people just being people.

Hugh, Alta's husband, is struggling with the notion of difference, however. When the novel begins, we see only that he goes on drunken binges, spending the paycheck Alta needs to run the household. What we eventually learn is that Hugh, the big, beefy steelworker, is a closet homosexual. By having married Alta and fathering children, he has the cloak of a family to protect him from the homophobia that runs rampant in the steelyard where he works.

Finally Alta enters therapy, taking Hugh with her, and the truth emerges. When Hugh's lover tests positive for AIDS, Alta is devastated.

One of the most inspiring elements of this novel, published by the Bilingual Press at Arizona State University, is the wonderful portrayal of strong women. There is Katie, who wins the struggle for her purse, but loses a harrowing battle against breast cancer. There is Jade, an Asian-American teacher who must deal with harassment by a couple of local lowlifes. And there is Alta, always struggling to improve her situation and to be there for her friends.

Despite the teen-age pregnancy that forced her to marry Hugh, Alta goes back to school part time and ultimately gets her bachelor's degree. She becomes a counselor and falls in love with a colleague, Michael, an African-American man.

Michael is struggling with a history of racism and rage, but together he and Alta discover that, through love, they can move past the boundaries of ignorance and prejudice. Michael and Alta learn that although you cannot change the world, you can change the way you live in the world. And sometimes that is the most courageous act of all.

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