Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Flamenco, who knew?

I just finished my third Sarah Bird book, The Flamenco Academy, and plan to put her on my favorite authors list right after I finish this post.

A lot of authors, particularly contemporary female authors, tend to write about You, With More Money. There are subgenres, too, of You, With No Money At All, and You, With A Ridiculous Amount Of Money. With the exception of the last, the women in them generally have careers and homes (if You have a Ridiculous Amount Of Money, why work?) Their men, whether they're seeking, losing, or escaping, are front and center. Their friends are to the side, supporting. Their family generally lurks in the background, coloring everything.

The three Sarah Bird books I've read are less about You, and more about the characters in them. In The Yokota Officers Club, it was about the college-age daughter of a military family in the 1960s and the effect all the moving around had on her life and family. In my least favorite of the three (and most about You), The Boyfriend School, the heroine is a freelance writer and photographer in oil-bust Austin who finds not only a living in writing romance novels, but a community and (bleh) a boyfriend. The plot still seemed formulaic, but the characters that inhabited it were unusual enough to make the book stand out in my memory.

So when I saw The Flamenco Academy, I decided to read it as a tie-breaker to determine whether or not I liked this author. I like Spanish music, and the book sounded promising. It delivered big-time.

The book is about obsession, and the history of flamenco, and the destructive side of friendship. The protagonist, Cyndi Rae, meets Didi when they're both juniors in high school. Cyndi Rae has been homeschooled and knows no one, has no friends, until she meets Didi in the oncologist's office. The two bond over their fathers' illnesses and their flaky mothers (both of whom lose interest in the role after the deaths of their husbands). Didi is a wild, flamboyant girl whose hobby is being a groupie. Didi intends to be famous, not the way most teenage girls do, but in the way of someone who will actually get there.

Cyndi Rae is the small, quiet planet that orbits around Didi's bright sun. Her career plans involve being Didi's manager and accountant until the night she falls in love. The description of her night with the mystery man is beautiful and emotional, and she knows nothing about him except that he's a flamenco guitarist. She and Didi track down his identity, which leads the pair of them to the so-called "flamenco academy" (actually a real university program, at the University of New Mexico, but "The Flamenco Program" isn't a very catchy title). Didi and Cyndi Rae are the stars of their intro class, Didi for her stage presence and Cyndi Rae for her mathematical ability to stay on the beat (earning her the nickname "La Metronoma").

The two use the flamenco scene (who knew, right?) to achieve their goals. Didi throws in some spoken-word and creates something completely unique that people flock to in droves. Cyndi Rae becomes a "flamenco nun," working day and night at her art, submersing herself in the flamenco world, and pursuing her goal of getting closer to her mystery man. If you pick up this book (and I do recommend it) you'll intuit what happens when she reaches it from the opening paragraphs, but I won't go into it here.

Novels that teach you something are always interesting. They can make a subject come alive in ways nonfiction can't. I'd kind of heard of flamenco before -- I'm sure you have too -- but the book taught me its history and a brief history of Gypsies in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. I learned that people can live "a flamenco life" the same way people can live "a blues life," how the music and dance are meant to be a translation and interpretation of real-life events. If I want to hear more or see more, I learned some names to google, too.

The relationship between Didi and Cyndi Rae is also fascinating. Most contemporary fiction doesn't look at the darker nature of female friendship, but I know I've had Didis in my own past, who were users but were also so much fun. And yet, I always miss them when they're gone. It's clear from the ending that Cyndi Rae does too, despite everything, and while the book ends on a relatively happy note, it doesn't end clean, leaving you with the feeling that the story of Didi and Cyndi Rae is far from over, and probably won't end until one of them dies.

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