Friday, May 5, 2017

Historical Fiction: Before the Rain Falls by Camille Di Maio

Last year I had the pleasure of speaking with San Antonio author Camille Di Maio about her first book, The Memory of Us. Her follow-up and the focus of this post, Before the Rain Falls, is set to come out Tuesday, May 16th. I am extremely grateful that she thought of me and offered to send me a copy. Due to the nature of the blog, it is rare I can cover a book before it is available to the public, so this is a nice treat.

The Situation: Della Lee has returned to her hometown of Puerto Pesar, Texas after a long absence. Everything seems to have changed, except that the small town remains small and has very little going for it. Even the name of it translates into "Port of Regret," a name that fits Della's situation perfectly. And while her return is not exactly met with a parade or a party, she is not at all surprised. Even 70 years later, everyone in Puerto Pesar knows the story of Della Lee, the woman who was sentenced to prison for the murder of her sister, Eula. To look at her now, it would be hard to believe the 90 year-old woman would have ever committed such an act. Paloma Vega is also making a return to her hometown, but under much different circumstances. Having grown up in Puerto Pesar, Paloma now resides in New York City where her career as a doctor is primed and ready to begin. Her brief visit to help take care of Abuela and see her younger sister will not only bring her back into contact with the people who raised her, but also a reporter from Boston wanting to know more about a well-known painting in Puerto Pesar that appears to be crying. 

The Problem: Only three people know what really happened the day that Eula was murdered, and two of them are dead. Della is not exactly interested in visiting the details of the day that would send her away for seventy years. Mick, the reporter from Boston, initially came to the small Texas town chasing a story about a picture that appears to be crying. But after learning that the picture is in the likeness of a Eula, the sister of the woman who recently returned from prison, Mick sees an opportunity for a different kind of story. Suddenly, Puerto Pesar does not seem to be such a boring place anymore. Of course, the incredible food, and the assistance of the beautiful and smart Paloma, certainly help with this realization. But he has a life in Boston, while Paloma has hers in New York, and a place like Puerto Pesar could never compete with cities such as those. But still there is Della and the story she has yet to tell, and the night of the murder is only the beginning of it. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in modern-day Texas, specifically in the small fictional town of Puerto Pesar. While the town may not be real, I can assure you, as a native Texan that was often subjected to long road trips to tiny towns that were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that there are places like this all over the state. Oppressive heat, a desperate need for rainfall, lack of industry and jobs, fantastic Mexican food...yeah, that is small border town Texas. When Della was growing up, her father's cannery provided many jobs to the town. But after he died, the cannery was sold, and then closed, and many of the families were left hurting. And during the 70 years she was incarcerated, it seems little has changed. Paloma certainly left as soon as she had the opportunity, leaving her with a guilt over leaving Abuela and her younger sister, Mercedes, behind. But while Puerto Pesar may be the primary setting, the secondary one of the Goree State Farm for Women is just as important, and is where most of Della's story takes place. It is what happens there, just as much as what happened to put her there, that will lend to the rest of the novel. The narrative switches between Puerto Pesar today, and Della's story in the 1940s. And it is not until near the end of the novel that her entire story is realized. Suffice it to say that the words "the truth shall set you free" certainly apply to this novel.

My Verdict: This is a well-written story that succeeds in being about more than one thing or one person. It is not only about Della and the events that put her in prison, much less what happened while she was in there. And her story by itself would probably be enough to fill an entire book. But Di Maio also decided to include the story of someone else who left Puerto Pesar, but for very different reasons, allowing the reader a view of the small town from a younger perspective. And then there is Mick, the complete outsider, who only shows up to get a story, and ends up with something else entirely. There are parts that are not entirely believable, such as how quickly the story is able to wrap up after the big reveals (yes, there is more than one). Or even how quickly Mercedes is able to get past her feelings of abandonment towards her older sister. But overall, this is a well-done novel.

Favorite Moment: When Mick, someone unfamiliar with good Mexican food, has a churro for the first time in his life. 

Favorite Character: Arturo, the owner of a local Puerto Pesar cantina, is the perfect mix of helpful and slightly overbearing. He is the local every visitor needs to visit, and not only for the potential of free margaritas and loaded nachos.

Recommended Reading: Naturally I recommend Di Maio's first novel, The Memory of Us. However, I will also recommend Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby, a nonfiction account of small town Texas life according to a visit by an outsider.            

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