The quest to find one’s self --- that mythical, magical journey of self-discovery --- is difficult enough in the country in which you were born. For Carla, our narrator and tour guide in Jessica Abel’s LA PERDIDA (now available in paperback), it’s an impossibility. Her personal journey leads her to Mexico City, a whirlwind of artistic and political endeavors, intense poverty and wealth, and the crime and drug use that spring up around both. It’s also home to more than a few young American expatriates.
When Carla arrives in town, she is, in theory, just there to visit her ex-boyfriend, Harry, and enjoy a short vacation. Carla, half-Mexican by birth but entirely American in lifestyle and attitude, doesn’t quite fit in in this strange new land, but she knows she wants to be there. She overstays her visa, frustrating Harry, who is more than ready to see his houseguest leave.
Carla is a clueless, blundering tourist when she first arrives, unable to speak Spanish and unaware of how she and her fellow Americans are viewed by the locals. She’s also a bit childish, selfishly overextending her stay with Harry without permission or invitation and remaining completely nonplussed at his many entreaties for her to leave. She’s more interested in boorishly studying (and attempting to emulate) Frida Kahlo than becoming truly acquainted with the culture she now finds herself living in.
That quickly changes, mostly because Carla is, in ways she cannot fully comprehend, completely ready to change. She learns Spanish, finds her own apartment and meets her own friends --- native citizens who educate her on Mexico’s ways but may also be the wrong crowd to fall in with. There’s Oscar, the drug-dealing hunk who becomes Carla’s boyfriend; Memo, an outspoken cad who tries to woo Carla while also criticizing her capitalist upbringing; and, ultimately, el Gordo, leader of a drug business and a man with dangerous plans.
Carla doesn’t realize just how deep she has fallen into trouble until it’s far too late, and it’s a testament to Abel’s slow styling that we the readers don’t either. An opening prelude warns us of what kind of tale to expect, but after that, Abel takes her time settling in, building up Carla’s persona not only as a lost soul but as foolish, impulsive and headstrong. When she comes to see herself as she truly is (and all that she has become), we feel we’ve earned the journey along with her.
LA PERDIDA is a rich exploration of the intertwining of two vastly different cultures joined by geography and circumstance yet existing worlds apart. Carla tries to find her place in this society, debating sociopolitical circumstances with Mexicans and Americans alike, never quite realizing just where all this blind ambition to fit in is leading her. That’s the problem with coming of age: The person you ultimately turn into may not be who you wished you could be. LA PERDIDA captures that poignancy brilliantly.
Reviewed by John Hogan on December 30, 2010