Reviews

BOOKLIST

In 1960s Ecuador, Malena Sevilla is coping with her father's suicide when her life is further upended by a letter, written by a woman who says she is Malena's mother and thus contradicting her father's claim that her mother was dead. Impulsively, Malena travels to the address on the letter, hoping to meet the writer who signed only as "A." Upon arrival, she realizes that her mother is one of four sisters—three of whom are living—whose names all begin with A. Taking advantage of a misconception that she is the daughter of a family friend, Malena delves into the pasts of the three women, hoping to uncover her mother. However, each sister has her own closely guarded secrets, and unearthing Malena's mother may bring to light all that they have tried to forget. Told in alternating points of view between the sisters and Malena, this delightfully addicting read is equal parts mystery, romance, and drama. Hughes weaves a dynamic story of passion and betrayal, and the power that the past can wield.

Which of the four Platas sisters of Alameda Street is Malena’s mother? Lorena Hughes’ debut novel is nonstop entertainment with a warmhearted touch, and the plot moves fast as secrets upon secrets come to light.

 

In 1962 Ecuador, just after her father’s suicide, Malena Sevilla discovers a shocking note among his things. Malena’s mother had supposedly died in childbirth, but the letter, addressed to Malena’s late grandmother, was written by a woman heartbroken about having given Malena up as a baby—and it’s signed only “A.” Seeing this, Malena abandons her nursing coursework and boards a bus from Guayaquil to the small Andes community of San Isidro, the place of the note’s origin, to find answers.

 

Arriving at the Platas home on Calle Alameda, she finds her task simultaneously easier (the family affectionately welcomes her, mistaking her for the daughter of a family friend) and more difficult (the sisters’ names all start with A). Trapped into an unintentional impersonation, Malena gets pulled into numerous dramas and spats as she searches for clues. All four women—motherly Ana, quiet and artistic Alejandra, glamorous widow Amanda, and fragile Abigail, who had died young—had hidden romances in their past, which are movingly revealed in flashbacks. Amanda’s plans to open a nightclub scandalize her conservative community and, seeing this, Malena worries how the revelation of an illegitimate child would affect the family. She also feels attracted to a darkly handsome man who’s already taken, and no good can come from that.

 

This book is great fun. Scenes involving clandestine late-night excursions, visits to a seedy motel, and Malena’s unexpected tango performances demonstrate the author’s skills in writing comedy—such a rare treat in historical fiction. The many threads are carefully untangled, and the strength of family wins the day. Heartily recommended to saga readers.

Malena Sevilla is distraught over her father’s recent suicide when, while going through his belongings, she discovers a note buried deep in a trunk. “Giving my daughter away was a deplorable, unforgivable thing,” Malena reads, astonished to discover that her mother did not die in childbirth, as she had always been told. Malena is determined to find out who the author of the note is, using its signature — a single letter A. — as her main clue.

The Sisters of Alameda Street, the debut novel of New Mexico resident Lorena Hughes, is already filled with intrigue by its second page, and the momentum never diminishes from there. Malena leaves her newly solitary life in Guayaquil, Ecuador, soon after receiving the letter in 1962, heading to the letter’s return address in the Andes mountain town of San Isidro. There, she meets the Platas family, including the three sisters Ana, Amanda, and Alejandra — all names that start with an A. Their deceased fourth sister, Abigail, adds one more potential mother to the mix.

 

Because of a mix-up, the Platas family welcomes Malena into their home, believing her to be another young woman whom they were expecting (but who, fortunately for Malena, has run away with her boyfriend instead). Malena stays with the family, pretending to be the other woman while she surreptitiously tries to deduce who her mother is. As she gets to know the generations of Platas women and men better, Malena begins to unearth family stories past and present: stories of illicit romance, betrayal, misunderstandings with dire consequences, sensual tangos, and even sexy accountants. She also gets to experience some of the fun herself.

 

Intermixed throughout the chapters set in the ’60s, chapters that take place between 1936 and 1941 depict the true story of the Platas sisters, providing readers with a viewpoint that is denied Malena while exposing clues to the mystery she is trying to solve. Hughes’ alternation between the novel’s past and present gives readers the satisfaction of added character enrichment, clarifying why Amanda has a limp and Ana hides a bruise on her wrist.

 

The Sisters of Alameda Street has a delightfully melodramatic plot. Its setting predates the wide popularity of telenovelas — instead, characters crochet while listening to their favorite radionovela — but its plot recalls the twists and mysteries of that TV form. Plot tends to trump scenic specificity, despite interspersed local details: guayabera shirts, agua de tomillo, the sacada and gancho tango steps. The narrative also tends to get in the way of vivid descriptions, with vague adjectives taking their place. “Their footwork was precise, intricate, and impeccable,” Hughes writes, shortly before describing Amanda’s beauty as “surreal, absurd.”

 

But what a diverting plot it is. The Sisters of Alameda Street is a joy to read, with delectably evil villains and gratifyingly strong female characters. When those women face marital, societal, and career limitations, they end up overcoming them with ingenuity. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a handsome suitor in the mix, too.) For some, like Malena, doing so may require a bit of duplicity, but as you’ve probably read on a T-shirt, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” A bit of bad behavior is great for protagonists, too. 

The Sisters of Alameda Street starts with a single tantalizing question that will grab readers from the very first page. With endless twists and turns, plus mysteries right and left, this soap opera-esque story never slows in pace. The Sisters of Alameda Street is set in Ecuador and flits between the 1930's and the 1960's. Author Lorena Hughes expertly captures the time period and the large cast of characters. The novel's lead heroines -- there are several -- are each fascinating, mysterious, and distinctly different. Despite varying time periods and points of view, Hughes manages to construct a clear narrative that is impossible to put down. The Sisters of Alameda Street is an irresistible and colorful read recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction and/ or family dramas.

© 2016 by Lorena Hughes. Proudly created with Wix.com