When the de la Cruz Family Danced, by Donna Miscolta
Signal 8 Press (2011)
Reviewed by Melissa Bashor
Johnny de la Cruz is an immigrant who left his Manila home for the US Navy at 17, his father’s way of keeping him out of trouble and away from his crush, Bunny Bulong. Johnny returns only once to the Philippines, at 40, without his wife and three daughters, to visit his ailing father, and is briefly reunited with Bunny, married herself now, and childless.
Twenty years later, Johnny de la Cruz is slowly dying, and he is afraid. Not of death, but of saying things he knows must be said, and hearing things that might be said back. And unbeknownst to him, less than 100 miles away, Bunny has died, and her son Winston is driving toward him with a letter to Johnny that Bunny never sent.
What does a lifetime of unspoken disappointment do to a family, a family close in proximity and ritual, but oceans apart in their minds? What happens when a charming stranger comes courting them, seeming to embody a fulfillment of their individual desires? Miscolta’s quiet and compelling novel explores this dynamic from every angle, each family member’s frustrations cataloged in his or her own point of view.
Miscolta is a master of capturing those intimate unspoken, hyper-aware moments between family members:
Josie knew she had irritated her father. He was making a mess of the mints. He looked at the clock on the wall.
“Where’s your mother?” he asked her.
Now Josie was irritated. “At her meeting?” She deliberately made it a question. After all, shouldn’t he know?
“Yes, her meeting.” Her father seemed satisfied, and for some reason Josie felt compelled to disrupt his composure.
Any novel with six points of view risks being unwieldy, especially when the characters are all so emotionally estranged from one another. The whole novel depicts an awkward dance, the characters all out of sync and stepping on each other’s toes, but Miscolta’s depiction of it is carefully choreographed, and under her deft direction, the reader never loses track. In fact, one of the chief pleasures of the novel is the suspense of wondering how she will braid the ragged threads of the characters together at the end.
Very good novels operate in a sphere beyond the characters, embedding their story within a time, a place, a culture, and Miscolta honors this tradition. She explores a particular immigrant experience, and the estrangement and rootlessness it can cause. Through this experience, she also comments on the isolation and unfulfilled promise of planned suburban communities in contrast to their messier, evolving urban counterparts. Throughout, there is a suggestion that, in our urge to find something better, we abandon the very things that could make us the most happy, despite our dissatisfaction with them. Miscolta has written a beautifully composed novel of a family in disarray, finally trying to dance its halting way back together.
Melissa W. Bashor received her MFA in fiction from Queens University of Charlotte, where she currently works as Program Coordinator. She is working on a novel.