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Book Review

Sassy Survivor of Fortune's Reversals

KISSING THE VIRGIN'S MOUTH By Donna M. Gershten HarperCollins $23, 228 pages


Guadalupe Magdalena Molina Vasquez, the narrator of Donna M. Gershten's lively and pungent first novel, is a survivor, as we would expect a woman born in a Mexican slum to be. But she proves to be much more than that.

Armed with nothing more than ambition, good legs and "strength of heart," Magdalena is a conqueror to rival Cortez, whose military exploits, painted on the walls of palaces and churches, she explicates to foreigners during one of the low points in her up-and-down career.

Before her tourist-guide job, she is married to the heir of a Monterrey ranch it takes four days to cross on horseback--an impressionable young man she seduced while dancing in a go-go cage in a Tijuana nightclub. Later, she marries an American and lives in suburban comfort in Moscow, Idaho, raising her daughter, Martina.

Either place is a leap from the Barrio Rincon in a coastal city in Sinaloa that resembles Mazatlan. When Magdalena is a girl, her mother is going blind. Her father is a frequent absentee who parades his girlfriends on Sunday in front of his family. Her legless, diabetic grandfather is half mad. Her Aunt Chucha was raped by police as a teenager and has had "no bones" since.

Magdalena discovers the "power of sex" at an early age, wearing short shorts as she sells tejuino, a corn drink, from a pushcart in the streets, earning enough pesos to feed her family--and hiding a few to propel her into the future.

She never surrenders to that power herself, viewing sex, or its promise, as the biggest gun in her carefully hoarded arsenal. But, like many a conqueror before her, Magdalena finds that the arts of war don't necessarily work in peacetime. And this is where Gershten's novel, winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for socially aware fiction, gets interesting.

It takes Magdalena awhile to understand what Abraham Maslow called the "hierarchy of needs." Once the belly and the bank account are full, once sex is available, other yearnings surface. She loses her rich rancher husband because she misses the color and vitality of her home city and takes up with a marijuana trafficker during her visits there. She loses her American husband because she views marriage as a job like any other.

"My job was to keep my man happy and interested," she says. "I kept him satisfied but not too satisfied, kept him a little off balance, a little confused, and in return, he kept me. That's how that job works. And there was always a test to show if I was doing my job. If my viejo looked for me in bed, I was doing a good job; if he didn't, I was not." Not surprisingly, he comes to feel manipulated.

Magdalena refuses, however, to lose her daughter. "Kissing the Virgin's Mouth" consists of "survival lessons" she tells Martina as a middle-aged restaurant owner in the touristy "golden zone" of her home city, where people from the barrio come only to visit a shrine to a statue of the baby Jesus, leaving blood on the sidewalk as they shuffle on their knees to prove their devotion.

Gershten, a native of North Carolina and now a resident of Colorado, operated a fitness and community center in Mazatlan for several years, evidently absorbing the spirit of Mexico through her pores. She makes Magdalena a rich and contradictory character--and, moreover, a canny storyteller in her own right.

As a 13-year-old, Magdalena is lured into a theater by the owner, who masturbates in her presence while plying her with food and classic Mexican movies starring the romantic idol Pedro Infante. The scene, as she tells it, is unexpectedly touching. Later, she tells a priest outrageous lies in confession about how her Monterrey mother-in-law made lesbian overtures to her--the only way she can get back at that formidable woman, who despises Magdalena for her dark skin and lower-class origins.

She describes meeting her American husband in a fairy tale she tells to console the 9-year-old Martina on the day she packs and leaves Idaho. Most of Magdalena's stories are about beginnings or endings--turning points. This one is about both. Gershten's novel, unlike most, leaves us wishing for even more of what happened in between.

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