Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Vigil (A Review)

By Cecilia Samartin
Atria Books (Simon & Schuster)
432 pages
July 21, 2009

When I was a child and turned to Sister Josepha for comfort, she told me that only time could heal the wounds of the heart and that the deeper the wounds, the more time needed to pass. She also said that sometimes these wounds were so deep that no amount of time would ever heal them and only God's infinite love could offer hope. I surmised that with the years that had passed and God's grace to aid the process, my heart had finally healed enough to make me start remembering.

Cecilia Samartin
was born in Havana at the dawn of Fidel Castro's revolution. She came to the United States at a young age and grew up in LA, surrounded by both her parents' native Cuban culture and the American society outside. "I grew up as a typical first generation Cuban American girl," she says. "My parents worked very hard to learn English, and get ahead in a new country. . . My sisters and I went to school, played with our friends, and tried our best to blend in a town where there were virtually no other Cubans and very few Hispanics." Samartin studied psychology at UCLA, where she also strove to develop "a more integrated sense of myself and my roots." For the past twenty years, Samartin has been a practicing psychotherapist working with recently arrived Latin American immigrants. Her debut novel, Broken Paradise, was published in 2007 and won the prestigious International Latino Book Award. Her second book, Tarnished Beauty, was equally well-received by critics and colleagues alike and became an internatioal bestseller.

Vigil, released on July 21 by Atria Books, was inspired by those "rare individuals" Samartin has worked with "who are able to turn personal tragedy into profound inner strength, and who have the power to transform those around them" (press release from Atria). Shifting between past and present, first and third person, Vigil opens with Ana at her lover's side as he slowly succumbs to terminal cancer. As the minutes tick by, she thinks back on her life and how she went from an impoverished El Salvadorian village to a rambling estate in California. The sole survivor of a massacre in the midst of her country's civil war, Ana was taken to a Catholic orphanage, only to barely escape yet another massacre when she fled with one of the nuns, Sister Josepha (an American), through the jungle. Shortly afterwards, Ana arrives in the United States and completes her education at a Catholic school. She plans on becoming a nun, but fate intervenes and she is hired as a nanny for the Trellises, wealthy family with a three-year-old boy and a girl on the way. As the years go by, Ana becomes acquainted with the painful pasts of Adam and Lillian Trellis - a fatal car accident and sexual abuse, respectively - and copes with her unrequited feelings toward Adam. She is also a surrogate mother to Teddy and Jessica, often shielding them from the tension between their parents. Following the Trellis divorce, she learns, much to her great surprise, that Adam has always loved her too. Although he is now sick, they still have a short time in which to be together.

A constant theme throughout Vigil is that of Ana's ardent faith in God and willingness to trust in His plan. Despite the horrors she has witnessed (rape, mass murder), she seeks to constantly emulate God's love for His children by bringing hope and comfort to others. Ana is a transformative figure, often acting as the catalyst for positive change in the lives of those around her.

I wanted to like this book. I really did.

No, I didn't hate Vigil. Far from it - there are some areas where Cecilia Samartin's talent is undeniable. Ana and Sister Josepha's conversations about the nature of God, earthly suffering, and transcendence, as well as Ana's internal meditations on the subject, are reminiscent of the dialogues between Jane Eyre and Helen Burns, which have been said to compose some of the most beautiful writing on Christian faith in Western fiction. (Forgot where I read that.) In stark contrast are Ana's experiences in the El Salvador civil war. Related in clear, almost journalistic prose, the two massacres and Ana's time at the orphanage are morbidly riveting. Before that, Samartin had treated us to a vivid portrait of life in a village in the rainforest, exploring the relationships between men and women, the role of religion in daily life, and the ominous intrusion of politics into this seemingly timeless society. To see it suddenly shattered is jarring. Ana describes hearing strange howling noises, both times, prior to the violence - similar to coyotes but more ominous, "as though the animals were closing in on us from beyond the jungle." A truly surreal, threatening moment. I know what coyotes sound like. We have them here in upstate New York. I love them, but their sound really is piercing and eerie. Having read this, though, I think it's going to be awhile before I can listen to them in quite the same way.

In short, Vigil has a very strong first act. Unfortunately, after that it starts to feel more like "inspirational fiction." To begin with, I never got a strong sense of setting when it came to the Trellis's mansion and grounds, the way I did with Thornfield Manor in Jane Eyre or Manderly in Rebecca. One critic describes the Trellis estate as having a "gothic feel." An important element of Gothic literature is, of course, the role of architecture as an external representation of the darkness, secrecy, corruption, and/or madness exhibited by the human characters (think of the doomed castle in "The Fall of the House of Usher" or Rebecca's continued "presence" in Manderly). Samartin has stated that she sees the Trellis family as "living in a bubble or a time capsule of sorts" and agreed that the "anachronistic" quality of the estate (servants, grandeur) reflects that aura of stagnancy. I understand what she's saying, and certainly some Gothic elements are there (family secrets, tragic nobility, echoes of Jane-Rochester), but it never seems like the characters are living in anything other than your average run-of-the-mill McMansion. The estate feels like a two-dimensional backdrop.

Granted, the primary focus of Vigil is Ana and her relationships to the people around her. The story is more internal (psychological) than external. It is about how Ana's faith and inner strength get her through the trauma she has suffered, and how that emotional fortitude "rubs off" on Matt, Lillian, Millie (the cook), and the children, Jessie and Teddy. Samartin definitely had a great premise there but she ends up taking it too far. She piles tragedy upon tragedy to an almost melodramatic extent. (I don't want to give too much away, but other readers might know what I'm talking about.) The dialogue can be a bit much. "Ms. Lillian, if you just keep your mind focused on your husband and your precious children and put them before everything else," Ana lectures, "that should give you enough strength to move mountains." To which Ms. Lillian replies: "Help me, Ana. Help me change so I can save my marriage and be a better wife and mother." And then later on, Adam: "Ana, don't you see how you've woven your gentle spirit through me and softened my coarse heart?" No, not all of the conversation is like that, but still, Samartin really could've toned it down in several places.

This also reveals some flaws with the characterization of Ana. Samartin does try to "ground" Ana by referring back to her mother and her old life in the village; there is also an earthiness to her physical relationship with Adam, as well as a hint of moral transgression. Still, Ana is just too saintly and . . . well, detached is too strong a word, but I think she definitely felt removed from all the drama and dysfunctional people surrounding her. She is meant to be a highly sympathetic character, yet she borders on self-righteous in her "separateness" and the way she magically changes everyone's lives, dramatically alters behavior that's been going on for decades (i.e. alcoholism, sex addiction), and somehow makes every individual a better person just for having met her. It started to irk me after awhile. Adam's eventual death is heartbreaking (not a spoiler - you're prepared for that on the very first page) but the ending was still a little too perfect. Potential disaster regarding other characters - turns for the worst that could easily have led to years and years of ill-will - is narrowly, spontaneously, and miraculously averted, all thanks to Ana. But there is a surprise in the last pages that I did not see coming, so I do have to commend Samartin for that.

Again: I didn't totally dislike Vigil. It had its strong points. It was also melodramatic with some cheesy dialogue and an annoying angelic protagonist. I do think some people will enjoy it more than I did, so maybe it's simply not my style? I guess it depends on what your tastes are. Vigil, to be fair, has gotten high praise from other writers, including Patti Callahan Henry and Karen White. I found it over over the top, but clearly there are others who will strongly disagree with me.


Anonymous said...

Dear E.L. Fay

I just read your review of "Vigil" and I want to thank you for a wonderful review. (I'm the author)While I understand that there were many aspects of the novel you took exception with, it was very refreshing to read such a thoughtfully balanced discourse. I believe that yours is the kind of review that offers benefits not just to your readers, but to authors as well, and I for one am delighted to have been one of them, and I want to do what I can to encourage good, albeit not positive, reviews such as yours.


E. L. Fay said...


Thank you very much for your kind words! I always do to be balanced in my reviews and to discuss what I did and did not like about a book. As I mentioned in the final paragraph, I think this was more a mismatch between book and reader - Vigil just wasn't what I typically read, and I think others would enjoy it a lot more. But I am glad you liked my review because I certainly didn't mean for it to be too negative.

Diane said...

I have this book and am looking forward to it Your review, was terrific--toughtful and balanced; thanks so much

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