United States: Sudaquia Editores 2022. 344 pages.
El amor que nos queda, Fernanda Reyes Retana’s third novel, is the story of love and rivalry between the members of a family in the present time. This novel traces events that span four generations and connect a grandmother, two parents, five siblings, a housekeeper, and a painting. The story begins with the image of dried leaves accumulated over time and ends with a pile of dry leaves before the bristles of a brush. This is how El amor que nos queda begins: “No one could have predicted the set of circumstances that, like heavy drops of rain, took place that afternoon. There was no way to calculate such a buildup and its subsequent overflow, brought about by those dry leaves that, unseen, are forgotten yet still hinder.”
It is not possible to foresee the set of events that shape—strengthen, weaken, or obliterate—affection between human beings. In any case, what transpires when in contact with the world changes us. But, what is a family? Is it the case that when parents die—the tradition, the history, that bond—the descendants always irremediably break away? Is it maternal or paternal will, custom, or inheritance that holds together the love of five siblings?
The story is told in a narrative voice that flits from character to character, between the siblings and the housekeeper, revealing an author who, through actions and appearances, displays tendencies, concerns, and the trace of grudges, preconceived notions, and misunderstandings. It touches on themes such as survival, attachment, love, loyalty, fear, distrust, and greed. The action and reaction of each character to the unfolding of this “set of circumstances that no one could have predicted” (let’s call it life) is distinctive, shaping each sibling and showcasing their individual humanity.
The rotation of this voice begins with Hermelinda, the housekeeper in charge of the paternal house where one of the daughters (Aurora) lives with her elderly father now that her siblings have embarked on their own family life. Aurora is a successful doctor. Lucía is the crude representation, the public face of the Martínez Alcázar family. She is married to Juan Carlos, with whom she has a son. Camilo has a son with Clara (Bruno) and, while he “loves” her, he does not wish to commit. He does not believe in love or women. They share parenting responsibilities. On a fine day, Clara announces her move to New York with a new boyfriend. Blanca is a mother of two and is married to Antoine, a Swiss circus performer who will teach the siblings a lesson in devotion, compassion, and forgiveness. David, the eldest, has historically been in charge of solving problems, protecting, and caring; he piles up frustration due to the lack of attention he receives from others. He is married to Livia, a seemingly materialistic woman. However, in this story, everything remains to be seen.
“THIS IS ONE OF REYES RETANA’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS, THE ABILITY TO APPROACH THE MOST BASIC HUMAN TENDENCIES WITHOUT JUDGMENT”
Hermelinda’s voice opens the novel as she oversees preparations for what will be the last birthday party of the paterfamilias, Don David. Thus, with these two symbols of tradition, the caregiver and the predecessor, the story begins. Soon the source of discord is revealed: Aurora announces her desire to sell a portrait of grandmother Lucía, painted under unclear circumstances (by Dr. Atl, no less), to the Regional Museum of Jalisco. Revelations about the work of art ensue, and Don David leaves a gift that no one will open: “Do not get confused… the objects we treasure in life are merely palliative, fantasies for the ego: to possess the grandest library does not make one intelligent; a luxurious house does not guarantee a home; nor does the most precious jewel ensure beauty… of course, a perfect portrait does not a story make.”
Minutes later, and without being able to calm the waters, the painting falls to the ground. The following chapters, from each character’s perspective on the events, present a fragment of the painting that is the novel. They offer a peripheral and insufficient perspective, revealing (like the nuances of a painting) the family history as the figures of fraternal union slip away. This is one of Reyes Retana’s accomplishments, the ability to approach the most basic human tendencies without judgment. The third-person voice dissolves into the characters, expressing their thoughts without dictating or qualifying them.
The death of and the dispute over the portrait of grandmother Lucía unveils old quarrels. Greed, resentment, and selfishness come to the surface. But discord gives way to perplexity when the eldest brother is kidnapped and the other four, not entirely convinced, end up selling the painting to pay the ransom.
This event adds to the existing tension, another achievement of this book: the story of five siblings, three predecessors, a housemaid, and a painting results in a tale of adventure. The dispute that uncovers resentments dissipates into fear of potentially losing one of the siblings, leading to the question: what remains when stripped of everything? Love. The memory of the love shared by their deceased parents might lead them (as Lucía always remembers) to find “the path back, the path to the other, to forgiveness, to happiness.” This is also the path that the younger generation offers to their parents, the siblings in conflict.
This realization will lead each one of them to make the pending decisions. But if, after everything, what remains is love, what to do with “el amor que nos queda,” the love that remains? In the end, Aurora wonders if “el amor que nos queda” is enough. Everything remains to be seen. The final word belongs to the reader of this thrilling story.