Most of us speculate about the lives our parents and grandparents led before they were parents and grandparents, inventing details to flesh out the bare facts of births, deaths and marriages. Was mom's childhood happy? How did grandfather become a shopkeeper, mason or weaver? In her long-awaited second novel, Sandra Cisneros explores questions like these, drawing heavily on her childhood experiences as the daughter of a Mexican father and Chicana-American mother to weave a multi-hued tale of a clan much like her own. As in her acclaimed 1984 novel, The House on Mango Street, Cisneros addresses complex issues such as poverty, cultural suppression, self-identity and gender roles, while maintaining a lyrical and poignant storytelling style. In Caramelo, she offers a portrait of the Reyes family, descendants of renowned rebozo, or shawl, makers. A striped caramelo rebozo, the most beautiful and difficult of all shawls to make, comes into Lala Reyes' possession, and in it she finds hints of her family's storied history. The Reyes' annual car trip sets the tone a caravan filled with children, laughter and bickering as the family travels from Chicago to Mexico City to visit the Awful Grandmother (Soledad) and the Little Grandfather. There, Lala hears her family's stories, some true and some healthy lies, from aunts, uncles and cousins. We travel backward in time to learn the story of poverty-stricken Soledad and her first and only love (the Little Grandfather), the tale of Lala's father and finally Lala's own troubled adolescence. Some details are fanciful, some romantic and some pure cuentos, or fables. The characters of Caramelo are distinctly isolated from mainstream America by their vocabulary, the imagery of their lives, the foods they eat and the values they cherish. Cisneros' use of these sensory images, which she favors over traditional narrative structure, creates a magical world. Vivid, funny, imaginative, historical and ultimately unforgettable, Cisneros' novel is destined to become a classic novel of the enduring nature of family. Kelly Koepke writes from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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