Consider Reading This

BOOK

Consider This, Senora

by Harriet Doerr

Harcourt Brace Publishing

$21.95

A tiny watercolor Mexican town huddles beneath pastel pink and purple mountains on the dustjacket of Harriet Doerr's new novel, Consider This, Senora. An azure bubble of a church dome, crimson and cream splashes of title roofing and whitewashed walls merge in a hazy dreamscape technicolor. The cover seems to promise a self-indulgent, romanticized odyssey into a picture perfect landscape. But the text within reveals nothing of the sort: Doerr's crisp, pacific prose never lapses into kitsch other-worldliness in this captivating portrait of gringos in small-town Mexico.

Doerr breathes vitality into a flat-tire genre. The past few years have positively seethed with charming, Toujours Provence-like depictions of the rustic life of those quaint foreign folk. Authors tend to subscribe to the crude narrative conventions of culture clash and nation of contrasts, where faraway lands seduce the reader with their irrational, undeveloped, unhurried, unchanging, quintessentially un-Western ways. And readers, doubtless locked in urban sprawl and economic recession, have lapped up such escapist literature with alacrity.

But Doerr avoids these cliches. Although she sets her story in a diminutive Mexican village with a disproportionate expatriate population, she treats her subject with all the originality of Nostromo or, well, of Stones for Ibarra, Doerr's previous book.

Doerr does more than regurgitate her past triumphs, however. While Stones for Ibarra examined an American couple forging new lives for themselves abroad, Consider This, Senora tells of four Yanquis living aloof from their Mexican surroundings. Rather than engage with their new land, the protagonists live apart, their Mexican adventure just a hiatus in the larger scheme. For them, Mexico is not a country in its own right, but an absence or escape from their former lives.

Sue Ames flees from her adulterous husband to the small town of Amapolas. She seeks a haven from hassles, from relationships, from dealing. She is joined on her hilltop fastness by Fran Bowles, a wayward nymphomaniac, fascinated by charming but fickle men. She buys her villa to stage an elaborate seduction scene. Fran, in turn, brings her widowed mother, Ursula, who has decided to end her days in Mexico, the land of her birth. She hopes to ease the transition between life and death, to clothe herself in an unreal, symbolic landscape.

Doerr juxtaposes these escapist psychologies with the brute materialism of Bud Loomis, the developer of the community. He jumps America to avoid a hearty dose of tax arrears and irate IRS officials. Before you can say, "Guillermo es tu tio," he has married a peasant girl and started breeding bulls.

By this subtle comparison, Doerr undermines the romanticism of the remote foreign hamlet. Loomis, the only involuntary member of the community, alone succeeds in forging a bright future in this brave new world. The others mentally reconstruct Amapolas to match the painting on the book's cover. The local grandee cautions his guest: "Consider this, senora. You are transforming Amapolas into something more beautiful than it is."

The three women gradually acheive an understanding of their surroundings, and of their separateness from them. They surrender their hard-earned delusions, both in their perception of Mexico, and in their own lives. In the end, while Loomis grinds on in souldestroying banality, each one takes up once again the fate they had imagined they were escaping.

Doerr's poignant portrait never lapses into sentimentality. The narrative voice thrives on an impassive, ineffably wise, yet indulgent tone which must reflect Doerr's 83 years. She never takes the easy option: Her book contains no blatant contrasts, no crass symbolism, no fortuitous plot-twists. She takes pains to tell you what's going to happen, and then manages to surprise you when it does.

Above all, she never descends to absolutes, to didacticism, to over-simplification. The reader, like the protagonists, leaves Amapolas with an exhilarating ambiguity of emotion. No one can tell you what to make of Consider This, Senora. Consider that.