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book review: cellophane


Marie Arana’s previous two works, American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood and The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work are both non-fiction. Cellophane is her first work of fiction, following a patriarch and his family as they convert their paper factory in the Peruvian Amazon into a cellophane factory. This book has been compared to Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, and both are family sagas set in Latin America in the first half of the 20th century. But where I found Allende’s plot too mired in detail, I found Cellophane to flow beautifully; where Allende’s magical realism was too fanciful, Arana’s mysticism was imaginative without being incredible.

Don Victor Sobrevilla is a clever engineer who has been obsessed with paper his entire life. He builds a paper factory — and an entire small society of family and workers, finca and village — on the banks of an Amazon tributary. All is well until he becomes gripped with the idea of making cellophane, at that time a new and somewhat wondrous product. Something strange befalls the Sobrevillas — first a plague of truth, then a plague of hearts (and lust), then a plague of revolution.

Every character is carefully wrought, intriguing, and unique, eccentric but believable. In the insulated world of the Sobrevilla hacienda, their lives are necessarily intertwined. An author can weave a coarse fabric, or a fine tapestry. Arana embroiders a pattern both simple and intricate, following the broad leitmotiv of the “plagues.”Her command of characters, plot, and prose is a joy to read.

Searching and finding, love and lust, truth and illusion, wealth and poverty, humor and pathos. It’s all here in Cellophane. A reviewer at Amazon described it as “expansive in scope and theme but magnificently controlled in execution,” to which I heartily agree. I loved this book and, frankly, there are not too many novels I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed.

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