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It's a wonderful life

The Turkish Lover: A Memoir, Esmeralda Santiago, Da Capo Press: 342 pp., $25

September 26, 2004|Yxta Maya Murray | Yxta Maya Murray is a professor of law at Loyola Law School and the author of several novels, including "The Conquest" and the forthcoming "The Queen Jade."

We are each of us a secret Odysseus; we want to craft our lives into the Big Adventure. And yet, that's an easy ambition to give up between the first love affair and the sixth, or during the everlasting commute to work. Wasn't Casanova busy escaping from the Inquisition at my age, instead of slinging frozen yogurt, someone in his early 20s might think with a twinge that pinches a major nerve. Wasn't St. Augustine wrestling with the demons of lust and hearing the call of God instead of napping through the movie "Troy"? Wasn't John Keats ... ?

Well, stop that right now. Our epic does exist in the family fights, the 9-to-5 job, the twice-a-week sex and the summer road trips in the Ford. Certain wondrous minds can set their existence to a majestic soundtrack and discern the magical in even the most ordinary of days. And theirs is a better way to go through life.

Esmeralda Santiago is one such creature, as she demonstrates in the exuberant third installment of her memoirs, "The Turkish Lover." One doesn't have to read her first two autobiographies, the well-received "When I Was Puerto Rican" and "Almost a Woman," to enjoy Santiago's confessions. Set in the mid-1960s and proceeding until 1976, the narrative tells of Santiago's life from the day she leaves her family in Brooklyn to live with her boyfriend Ulvi Dogan in Florida until the year of the Bicentennial, when she graduates as a newly single woman from Harvard University. In this era, Santiago has many adventures, and as she is her own Homer, she provides us with a road map for how to embark upon heroic exploits -- or to look back and see our own small acts and crossroads and risk-takings in legendary terms.

First, leave home. All great stories contain a journey, and Santiago's departure from her family is her version of the calamitous sea expedition that begins "Twelfth Night." At 21, she leaves a note by the front door, then decamps from her Brooklyn-based clan for a new life with Ulvi in fabulous Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

From what does she escape? Her family is headed by her formidable working-class mother, who wears "huge pink-framed rhinestone-studded eyeglasses" and loves her daughter passionately yet is not above hitting her when angered. Santiago limns her childhood as a time of happiness and does much to highlight her mother's seductive, masterful parenting, but she also reveals how she was cramped and controlled by the expectations that a good Puerto Rican girl (una nena puertorriquena decente) be chaste and modest. According to her family: "Americanas had too much freedom to do as they pleased, which they abused by being sexually available to any ... who looked their way. Americanas were also disrespectful of their elders, contemptuous of family, lazy housekeepers dependent on prepared foods, and, in spite of their sexual freedom, did not know how to please a man." A sexy, Stouffer's-eating, negligent housekeeper herself, Santiago flees these prejudices and rushes toward the hope of a brilliant life as she flies to Florida.

Then, take a lover. Every epic needs some good sex, and "The Turkish Lover" contains plenty of it, as it describes the course of Santiago and Ulvi's seven-year itinerant relationship that travels from Fort Lauderdale to New York, then Lubbock, Texas, the Bahamas, Syracuse, N.Y., and last, to Boston. Ulvi is a disappointed film producer who never quite finds his place in the world as the two wander from state to state, attending school, working at various jobs and trying, with only modest success, to secure stable professional lives. For much of the book, they seem lost on a quest through America, now taking classes in Lubbock ("My miniskirts were scandalous at the library, even though by New York standards they were barely mini. My co-workers made frequent suggestions for how I might change my natural look to something more West Texan"), now working in Syracuse as Ulvi pursues a graduate degree in engineering ("As I gained confidence in my job, el que diran [what people would say] began to lose its power to influence my decisions in other parts of my life."), and in between taking fateful little vacations that read like road trips a la Dante ("I was happy that ... I was the most important person in Ulvi's life, even if he had just tried to kill me with the Camaro.")

During these peregrinations, Ulvi is revealed as a sexist who dictates Santiago's wardrobe, slaps her face and won't consider marriage, but he cooks and cleans and can take tender care of her. Thus, we see that Ulvi harbors many of the classic contradictions of the human personality, yet he never manifests as a full character, in part because he remains emotionally hermetic during their years together. A question dogs the memoir: Why does she stay with him for so long? Beyond the prosaic answers of insecurity and ennui, another reason is the incredible love life that they share:

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