THE HOUSE OF BROKEN ANGELS, by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown and Co.; 326 pp., $27.
“The House of Broken Angels” opens on the morning of the funeral of the de La Cruz family matriarch, Mamá América. Her eldest son, Big Angel, who is himself dying of cancer, has, for the first time in his 70 years, woken up late, launching the novel into a headlong, comedic rush. It’s a busy, emotional weekend: The day after the funeral, Big Angel is throwing himself what he knows will be his last birthday party.
Set in San Diego, this clamoring and joyful new novel by Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Urrea is a story of crossed borders: the U.S.-Mexico border, of course, across which the family immigrated years ago, but also the borders between versions of history and between life and death. Formally, too, the novel insists that the full story can only be told through border crossings, and so we leap among points of view and back and forth through time.
The broken angels of the title are Big Angel, who has, his whole life, prepared for the role of patriarch, and his much younger half-gringo half-brother, Little Angel. Both men live in the shadow of their formidable father, who shaped their lives with his passions and disdain and abandonments.
Big Angel is the last keeper of the family’s history and their origins in La Paz, Mexico. Even from his bed, he commands the party — and the novel, too — his exuberance overflowing the boundaries of his ailing body. He keeps notebooks, in which he catalogs his reasons for gratitude, not least of which is his unabashed lust for his beloved wife, Perla.
Little Angel, a professor in Seattle, is “the footnote to the family,” the youngest sibling, born after Don Antonio left Mamá América for an American woman. Born too late, to a lonely childhood of both privilege and privation, Little Angel feels forever on the outside: “He caught small flashes of family history like shreds of colored paper spinning in the wind.” He stands at the edges of the party, his own notebook in hand. “I don’t know who anybody is,” he tells his half-sister. “It’s my cheat sheet.” And yet family is both Little Angel’s subject and the locus of his longing: “He believed he was celebrating them when he shared stories of their foibles. He felt the burden of being their living witness. Somehow the silliest details of their days were, to him, sacred.”
Urrea’s affection for his characters is contagious, and the reader feels as though she’s been welcomed to the party. Big Angel’s birthday is a day of pleasure and abundance: tables weighted with food, the backyard crowded with music and voices, the easy slippage between languages. Old enmities and jealousies and attractions are on display. Cousins and in-laws flirt and squabble. Lineages get muddled, generations leak into one another. (Like Little Angel, the reader may want a cheat sheet.)
For all the traumas in the de La Cruz family history — including three murders — the most painfully wrought hurts are the ordinary ones: a brother’s phone call that never comes, a father’s lie, the ache of being in a new country and seeing home just over the fence.
When the party is seized by the threat of violence, Big Angel proves himself courageous in the face of death. But above all, he is courageous in his love, and the novel is beautifully unapologetic in this affirmation. “All we do, mija,” Big Angel tells his daughter, “is love.” In such a brimming, expansive novel, the most powerful image is the quietest: two adult brothers holding one another in bed, embarrassed and pleased.