Wednesday, February 08, 2012


The House on the Lagoon, Rosario Ferre, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1995, 407 pp

I belong to four reading groups, all of which meet in real time. Because I read so much, I am always dying for people to discuss books with, but reading group picks are an unpredictable mix. What a treat it is then to read a great book I might otherwise have missed if it weren't for those reading groups.

The House on the Lagoon is historical fiction set in Puerto Rico; Rosario Ferre is a Puerto Rican writer, poet and essayist. She writes in both Spanish and English, self-translating her books. The English edition of this novel is apparently out of print, but can be found in libraries and through used book sellers.

Buenaventura Mendizabal, a Spanish immigrant, arrived penniless on the shores of Puerto Rico in 1917 with nothing to recommend him but a good family name. He rose to be a wealthy man in the highest levels of Puerto Rican society and begat a dynasty, passing on the ruthless and violent ways of Spanish conquest. Through the generations his descendants intermingled and even at times intermarried with other levels of society and heritage, as is the way of colonized lands.

When I was in grade school, we were taught that Puerto Rico was an island of friendly people who were proud to live in a United States territory and whose fondest dream was that their island would become a state. So typical of the "Social Studies" taught to us in the 1950s. Reading The House on the Lagoon gave me a much truer picture of Puerto Rican history in the 20th century.

So that is fine on an educational level, but this novel works on many levels, one of which is a clear-eyed look at the position of women in a culture that combines Spanish aristocracy, wealth and business with the indigenous population. In that regard it is a triumph of historical writing including politics, finance, the arts and real social studies, as well as a finely wrought piece of literature.

Isabel Monfort is writing her first novel. It is to be a history of the Mendizabal family, known to her because she is married to Quentin, the grandson of Buenaventura and current head of the family business. In alternating chapters we read Isabel's novel-in-progress and Quentin's reactions to her writing. Thus we are given both the male and female perspective as the history evolves and leads to a stunning conclusion.

Many thanks to the wonderful Mary Helen Ponce, a fine writer herself and member of one of my reading groups, for recommending the book. We eagerly await Mary Helen's next novel!

(The House on the Lagoon is available in English and Spanish, hardcover and paperback here.)

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