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Sunday, May 12, 2013

"The Five Acts of Diego Leon" by Alex Espinoza (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"For readers of The Chaperone and The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, a thrilling, unforgettable novel about an unusually gifted young man who leaves Mexico for Hollywood in the late 1920s, determined to pursue his dreams-no matter the cost.

July 1917, Mexico: Orphaned by a fever that took his mother's life and a civil war that left his father a broken man, 11-year-old Diego Leon is sent to the provincial capital to live with his aristocratic grandparents. There, they try to forge a new identity for young Diego, rewriting his past and grooming him to take over the family business. The only relief from this suffocating life are his warm, kind music teacher and her son, from whom Diego is inseparable. 

But when his grandparents force an engagement with a woman he doesn't love, Diego finally snaps, leaving his fractious country behind. He heads for Hollywood, where silent films are just transitioning into "talkies," and Prohibition is in full swing. But thousands of miles from home, in a land full of people out for themselves, will Diego ultimately find the love and acceptance he seeks? In this moving novel about ambition, love and identity, Diego Leon discovers that living your dreams can come at a cost."

The Five Acts of Diego Leon is a very intriguing novel with an excellent last half after a scattered beginning that almost kept me from reading it. There are books where throwing the reader into the "deep" and then going back to the "real start of the story" can be confusing sure, but usually there is a good reason for that since the first few pages are so important. The Five Acts of Diego Leon is just a perfect an example where the use of that technique would make it a stronger novel, since following a chronological order makes for a very boring and narrative wall hitting beginning 100 pages or so.

Luckily my habit of reading random pages from a book that sounds interesting but whose beginning is a slog, just to see if there is a "hook", worked so I got really interested in the story of Diego Leon on about here:

"November 1928
His payment was enough to cover the rent, plus a little extra, so he used some of his earnings to purchase a pair of plus four trousers, argyle socks, a new shirt, and a tweed checkered flat cap to wear on his date with Fiona. That night he showered and dressed and adjusted his tie in the mirror. He placed the flat cap on his head, turned, and walked out the door, whistling all the way down the steps."

After that I read the remaining part of the novel in one sitting and then got back and read the beginning too, though the story really doesn't get interesting until Diego skips on his arranged marriage and that should have been the first page of the novel imho...

The Five Acts of Diego Leon turned out to be quite a good story and the narrator who while confused about his identity - he gets his break in Hollywood by having a (gay) affair with the boss of a studio, though also having earlier encounters with both women and men, and similarly wanting to fit in LA, he also desired to keep his Mexican identity and his "regular" name and story while the studio bosses wanted both a "conqueror name" aka Diego Cortes and a glamorous background to market him as a star - becomes very interesting after that first blandish half.

The last 100 or so pages and the series of events leading to a great ending - which may or may not signal a new beginning, so do not expect things to be neatly tied up with a string - are superb and the book is worth reading for that part only.

Lots of topical stuff regarding the Latino and Mexican experience in the US, the various responses of various people to it, so all in all
The Five Acts of Diego Leon is a highly recommended novel with great narrative energy once it settles down.


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