Review

Sweet Mary

by Liz Balmaseda

Dulce Maria “Mary” Guevara is wrongfully accused of
being a drug trafficker, for which she loses her income and son.
The “queen of bad timing” becomes a novice realtor in a
real-estate bust and desperately needs the Big Bucks commission of
a Texas millionaire on the sale of a house that is
“over-the-top style of the cocaine-era nouveau riche,”
complete with a “stripper’s pole, as if the
Scarface cheese hadn’t been enough.” Mary
swallows pride when asked to stand next to the pole. “I
grabbed the pole with one arm and swung myself around. That’s
right: I swung on the damn pole.” Flashing back to age nine
on a double dare, climbing a coconut palm without gym shorts, she
justifies clinching the commission to support her son. “So
this was a tree, not a stripper’s pole. I tucked the hem of
my skirt between my thighs to prevent a peep show and I tightened
my legs around the pole. I slowly curled myself back up, wrapped my
arms around the pole, and leaped off. I adjusted my skirt, slipped
on my sandals, and casually walked back to the astounded cowboy. I
leaned down toward the bed. ‘Let’s make a deal, you and
me,’ I said. ‘I’ll take it,’ he said.
‘I’ll take it, Sweet Mary.’”

“I should have come to expect that no matter how hard I
work, how much I achieve, how generous I try to be, I will always
be the outsider in [my parents’] house...but when crunch time
is near, mine is the only name they all remember. In times like
that, my initials might as well be ATM.” When asked by
“Mami” for money to help her Loser-with-a-capital-L
brother with child support, Mary refuses. When her young nephew
runs to his favorite aunt, Mary leaves a $5,000 check, not for
Loser but for the right reason. When young, Mary never received
gifts without “plastic security tags still
attached.”

With an Elían González-like home invasion, DEA agents
SWAT-storm Mary’s modest house. In Miami, Spanish names are
dangerously common; 27 pages of the surname “Martinez,”
three with “José.” Ex-husband Tony gets full
custody of their son, Max. At the custody hearing, Mary observes:
“At the root of it all was the lingering doubt over my true
identity. The judge herself inferred so in her babblings from the
bench.”

Realism lacks in some instances. Mary keeps her cool and
responds with questions to grueling DEA interrogation instead of
answers. A federal prosecutor claims birth certificates easily can
be forged. Elliot Casey is “the rock star defense lawyer I
had seen on cable news programs... certainly out of my price
range.” Casey didn't object to the alleged forgery and
obtained an authenticated certificate to prove that Colombia-born
Maria Guevara Portilla was not his client. The only prosecution
witness is a bumbling Texas lieutenant who identifies a photo of
Casey’s daughter as Portilla, the “drug
queenpin.” Inconclusive fingerprints get the case
dismissed.

With charges dropped, a realtor linked to drug trafficking is
still guilty in the minds of wag-tongues. In Atlanta’s 1996
Olympic Park bombing, Richard Jewell discovered explosives planted
by Eric Robert Rudolph. Devastated, Jewell eventually prevailed. To
clear her name, Mary must find Portilla. SWEET MARY is a story of
self-valuation, checking premises, and understanding that values
people impose on others need not be judged, as was Mary by error of
the justice system and the child custody judge’s
“babblings.” Drug kingpin Jimmy Paz (Spanish for
“peace”) is located by Mary with the name opposite
peace, “Guerra,” meaning war. His cohort has new
monikers: Sofia Newhouse is also Sofia Villanueva, aka Maria
(“Bad Mary”) Guevara Portilla.

Despite a downcast glance along her Pinnocchio-sized attitude at
Joe Pratts (“We came from the same subset of the
world”), Mary realizes the reason Joe stayed in his
“subset” was to care for his father, who is now dying.
Not faced with that circumstance and feeling her choice was
superior, Mary’s reality check does a rubber-ball bounce.
Enlisting the aid of Joe, who seduced her at age 17, she does a
redux dance on an imaginary stripper’s pole, degrading
self-esteem to regain custody of her son. Mary opines that mourning
“is a state of being that transcends ordinary sadness, one
that comes with the cruel realization that you will never be whole
again.” But like the $5,000 check and the original realtor
pole dance, it’s why she does things, not the acts
themselves.

With heavy-handed irony, Liz Balmaseda causes Mary to question
everything she has learned as vigilante. Subplot tangents are tied
up a little too neatly. Earning two journalism Pulitzer
Prizes, Balmaseda uses impact statements and momentary flashbacks,
so be alert when reading. Balmaseda can turn a phrase, and score a
major coup by using what was only briefly mentioned chapters
before. A yearning for justice, her beautifully orchestrated first
novel is also a noir journey of self-discovery.

Sweet Mary
by Liz Balmaseda

  • Publication Date: July 14, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Atria
  • ISBN-10: 1416542965
  • ISBN-13: 9781416542964