By Anna-Marie McLemore. Feiwel & Friends, 2017. 9781250124555
(Release date: October 3)
When I sat down to start this review, I thought I’d begin by giving myself a crash course on “magical realism.” I can wield the term but with little more than glancing authority.
I’ve since abandoned that quest. Not because it isn’t worthy, but because I’d rather spend the time and space diving into the wonder that I found in Wild Beauty, which addresses racism and classism and homophobia, misogyny and many forms of exploitation, in the context of a work of magical realism in which what is impossible in the world in which we live when we close the book is, of course, the magic, while the realism of the singular story is grounded in the tragic believability of all those terrible things in the real world we wish didn’t happen but do.
Wild Beauty introduces the Nomeolvides women, who have been keeping the grounds of La Pradera in full bloom for generations. Not by planting and tending, but by digging their hands deep into the soil and drawing forth flowers and trees in their maturity: colorful blossoms, green leaves, ripening fruit. This is their gift.
And curse. Before the Nomeolvides came to La Pradera, they were accused of being witches. The Briar family, the White owners of La Pradera, gave them safe haven in exchange for them transforming the landscape of the estate.
That was generations ago, but the Nomeolvides have never left. Not just because the work never ends. Because they can’t. The land has bound them to it. They can take a trip into town, but if they try to leave for good they will die, gasping for air as pollen fills their lungs.
And there’s more. When a Nomeolvides woman falls in love, the land will take her lover—cover him with the earth. For generations they’ve sent their lovers away to save them.
At the center of this story is Estrella Nomeolvides, one of five young women who are cousins on the estate. The cousins have a shared secret: they are all in love with Bay Briar, a young woman they grew up alongside and who has now inherited La Pradera. None of them dare to act on that love for fear Bay will disappear. And none of them believe their mother could possibly understand her loving another women.
Then a dusty, dirt-covered, skinny young man, barely more than a boy and brown-skinned like the Mexican American Nomeolvides, appears one morning at La Pradera, rising from the soil. His clothes are worn and outdated. Is he a lost lover of a long-ago Nomeolvides woman returning to the world? He has no clear memory of his past. They call him Fel: three letters written on the ribbon pinned to his shirt. Four of the cousins treat him like a brother, but Estrella’s feelings for Fel are anything but familial.
Not long after, Reed Briar arrives at the estate. Arrogant, entitled, he intends to challenge Bay’s inheritance. Bay, and the aunt who raised her, were Briar outcasts. It turns out Reed is too, but he’s been raised with privilege and hubris and is seeking to find his way back to the center of the family’s and society’s good graces. The Nomeolvides are the means by which he intends to impress. Estrella understands this. They all do. But she is the one who agrees to give him what he wants, hoping to leverage greater safety for the rest of them.
Reed’s arrogance and attitude, his greed and his lust for power, are symbolic of the hidden history of the Briar’s and La Pradera; a history that turns out to be the source of the curse that ties the Nomeolvides to the land, and seals their lovers’ fates; a history rooted in race and class prejudice. Woven into that history are the generations of Nomeolvides women who were complicit in covering it up without knowing.
“Nomeolvides”: Do not forget. But it was the land that never forgot what happened. And it’s the land that has demanded some form of justice ever since, doing what the world of White men and privilege refused to do.
Wild Beauty unfolds in its own time under the sure hand of Anna-Marie McLemore’s lush storytelling. Sensory-rich details create a vivid physical and emotional landscape while the characters breathe on the page.
There is magic and there is realism in Wild Beauty. In the story, and in the real world, hope resides in the space between them. Hope is what happens when lies become truths; when mothers and daughters let go of their secrets; when gender does not define who we are or whom we love; when justice belongs to the living, and we do not forget the dead.
Reviewed by Megan Schliesman