O.Henry Award winner, Charlotte Forbes, has put together a brilliant collection of sixteen stories focusing on the life of Ayela Linde, the illegitimate daughter of a Mexican dressmaker, Felidia Garzon.
All of the stories are arranged chronologically from the time Ayela is seventeen until the day she dies. Although they are all inter-linked, they nevertheless stand by themselves as distinct sketches of Ayela as depicted from the different perspectives of family, friends and acquaintances whose lives she touched.
The format Forbes has adopted curtails excess verbiage or pedantry and demonstrates the breadth and depth of her superlative writing abilities. It is also an attestation that it is not so much the story that is important but rather the way it is told.
We never quite figure out Ayela however we do glean from the bits and pieces of the various narrators a touching insight into the many facets of her personality and temperament.
When we first meet Ayela at age seventeen, we learn from her friend Druanne that she lived with her religious mother and superstitious grandmother in the backwater colonial town of Santa Rosalia, north of the Rio Grande. It appears that her grandmother loved her more than her own mother, with whom she was constantly embroiled in a contentious relationship that according to Ayela began "the day she dropped from her mother's womb, a howling prune of a baby, ravenous for milk that had not begun to flow and sucking a dry breast with a sense that her mother held nothing she needed."
Her singular beauty was undeniable and attracted all the men wherever she went including her future husband, a young sophisticated Boston lawyer, Frederick Linde, who first laid eyes on her when she was eighteen. Immediately smitten and overwhelmed by her exquisiteness and air of mystery he followed her around and insisted that they elope. The reaction of some who knew Ayela, however, was that they thought of "Frederick as a hunting dog, as they shook their heads sadly at his misplaced ardor."
Many perceived Ayela as aloof, insensitive, self-absorbed and obstinate and even her own three children did not get along with her. In particular, the eldest, Xavier, was completely shattered when she didn't even read his poem at the opening of the town's Art Pavilion- a poem he believed to be "great, vivid, and intelligent about the only woman in the world for him."
On the other hand, she did have feelings for the sick and poor and was not impressed with someone's wealth or position in society-emphatically stating that she would never use her husband's wealth or position for her own self-gain.
Hortensia Drenk, one of Ayela's friends recounts how she rarely worshipped in the town's parish preferring to drive to a tumble-down church in Oderada in order to sit in the back pews with the Mexican day laborers, as she preferred the company of the poor in church.
No doubt, some were envious, as they whined that she had risen into the town's high society from a poor birth and improper upbringing. Another of Ayela's acquaintances, Beatriz Delgado could not forgive her detachment for refusing to become a member of the Alter Guild. Ironically, although she had refused to become their leader in a project to renovate and re-open the old Mission Chapel, Ayela, nonetheless and without the members' knowledge, got down on her hands and knees to scrub the floors of the building that housed the chapel. When asked why she was doing this her reply was matter-of- factly, "It's what I know how to do." Others wondered if anyone could even be close to Ayela other than her husband Frederick, who they believed saved her from herself. However, they questioned if that was in fact being close.
Charlotte Forbes is clearly a very talented writer and each piece of The Good Works of Ayela Linde is well-crafted, heartfelt and entertaining. In the end, the novel simply works and I look forward to reading more from her.