Marie Arana is perhaps best known as the editor of the Washington Post Book World and an accomplished literary critic. Her memoir, American Chica, received widespread acclaim. Now, on the strength of Cellophane, her first novel, it's likely she'll win new readers as an author of compelling fiction.
Arana's protagonist, Don Victor Sobrevilla, is a skilled, if somewhat unconventional, engineer who lives with his family on a hacienda he dubs Floralinda, located in the Amazon jungle region of Peru. There he enjoys a comfortable life, managing a prosperous factory that employs hundreds to manufacture paper, a substance that obsesses him. When Sobrevilla, known by the natives as the shapechanger for his almost supernatural ability to transform ordinary materials into items of value, painstakingly discovers the secret of making cellophane, his life and those of the people around him change in unexpected ways, both humorous and tragic.
Soon, the members of the Sobrevilla family and others in the community find themselves inexplicably revealing the deepest desires of their hearts with an embarrassing frankness. Long-buried passions surface and threaten to take control of their lives. An American cartographer and an Australian boat captain arrive and are thrown into the bubbling cauldron of emotion. But the appearance of a ruthless Peruvian army general, whose goal is to plunder the wealth of Floralinda, signals the demise of this once idyllic world. The shocking climax of the novel is both apocalyptic and redemptive.
Cellophane is peopled with a rich cast of characters, and Arana does a marvelous job of capturing the sights, sounds and smells of the jungle world, awash with bright colors and exotic creatures. Scenes that bring to mind masters like Garc’a M‡rquez and Cervantes make it clear that she has imbibed the rich tradition of Latin-American magical realism. What makes this novel such a satisfying read is that Arana has built on that tradition to create a work that's original and full of life. Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.