July 23, 2007
Eric B. Martin's "The Virgin's Guide to Mexico" - Studying A Role Reversal?
Eric B. Martin', in his novel "The Virgin's Guide to Mexico" tries to capture the 'south of the border' experience through his 17 year old, part-Mexican, Harvard-bound heroine, Alma Price. She is born to a rich American father and a Mexican mother whose past is shrouded in mystery. A 'not-so-good-looking but intelligent girl,' Alma ventures to cross the border disguised as a boy and without the knowledge of her parents to explore her roots in Mexico; specifically a grandfather who she is not sure is even alive. It is this journey of Alma into and through Mexico, and the pursuit of her by her parents that constitutes the storyline of the novel.
The storyline is perhaps the most interesting part of the novel even though it often lacks depth. Eric Martin could have done a lot more in terms of the plot given that he had an interesting array of characters at his disposal. For example Hermelinda, the Mexican mother of Alma, remains an enigma to the very last; why she plays down her past never becomes clear! Similarly, the family dynamics within the Price household are left hazy since Martin underexposes the interactions between Alma and her family. It is only in Mexico that Alma really fructifies in the reader's imagination. In fact the story moves at a much faster pace and with zest only after Alma is in the heart of Mexico, striving to fit into the alien but more open Mexican lifestyle. The dual point-of-view narrative that Martin uses, with both Alma and Hermelinda trying to tell their story, doesn't make it any easier for the reader who is already a trifle weary.
Despite all the above, I enjoyed reading the novel mainly because of the lively cast of characters that Martin provides us with once Alma enters Mexico; Dean, Lee, the transvestite, the prostitutes. Alma's interactions with all these characters makes for some sprightly reading. Also, having pondered over the title, I found new respect for this novel despite it's various shortcomings. Martin has 'virginized' his novel in more ways than one; Alma, his heroine is a 'virgin' embarking on her 'virgin' venture, sans parents, sans itinerary, into a world that's 'virgin' not just to her but to most Americans who only hear of border crossings from Mexico into USA; however, this crossing is 'virgin' in that it's an American Alma crossing over into land south of the border!' For any American reading this novel , the journey of Alma would be a first, and definitely traumatic since the roles of 'native' and 'immigrant' would now be reversed; an ill equipped American desperately trying to survive in a foreign land, among a people so obviously different, and where the ground rules of social interaction are completely unknown to her. Alma truly does need a 'guide' to figure out the mysteries of Mexico!
Finding out whether Alma succeeds or otherwise would be contingent on you reading the book, which I recommend you do only if you don't have a better book on your list.