Doesn’t it always seem that the books that you have the highest expectations for are the ones that let you down? That was my experience reading Give It to Me by Ana Castillo, this year’s winner in the bisexual fiction category at the Lambda Literary awards. This novel left me with a lot of mixed feelings, ones even two months or so after reading I haven’t managed to sort out.
Give It to Me is one of those hard to describe books. The tone is all over the place. On the one hand, it’s kind of a romp, with the main character Palma Piedras’s bisexual sexcapades featured throughout the story and lots of random antics, like being an extra in a Tommy Lee Jones movie and randomly meeting a Dalai Lama-like Buddhist guru who gives you life advice. So at first the novel feels like it’s going to be light-hearted and escapist. It is definitely not. On the other hand, this novel is aching with (be)longing, and Palma is so desperate at times beneath her façade it’s heartbreaking. There is also some serious shit that goes down in this book, some of which shows Palma in quite an unflattering light.
This is a book by a Latina author about a Latina woman, and the tone got me thinking about Latin American music, which I hear a far amount of because both my partner and a good friend are Latino. Sometimes what feels really foreign to me about that music is the combination of melodies that sound happy, and lyrics that are sad. Often sad Latin American music doesn’t sound sad to me. I felt similarly confused about this book. I think it’s quite likely this is an entirely cultural issue, and that my mixed feelings are a result of my white cultural and racial background. I’d be interested to hear what Latin@ readers think about the tone!
At times, Give It to Me is laugh-out-loud funny: Castillo has a dark, biting sense of humour that straddles the border between comedy and tragedy, much like the tone of the book. This was definitely one aspect of the book that I liked. Only a few pages in, I was chuckling to myself while reading.
This book also had a lot of smart, real things to say about gender, race, (bi)sexuality, and class. One of the more interesting parts was when Palma was thinking especially about being mestizo, a “Native red-brown” in comparison to a black friend/lover:
She’d have given anything to be that color. Or white as his porcelain toilet. Either black or white. The in-between thing hadn’t worked out in her most recent incarnation. The brown woman was taken for the chambermaid in hotels or the housekeeper .. . . Did she speak English? Spanish? Would she nanny for them? Did she clean windows? Maybe it was the look of the future owners of the world but not yet.
Despite gems like that, about halfway through the book I began to get tired of the meandering / lack of plot. I thought maybe in the second half the novel would pick up and would start going somewhere plot-wise, but I figured out three quarters through that what I was waiting for wasn’t going to happen, and then that felt too late to re-evaluate and change my expectations. It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Palma ends up pretty much where she started at the end of the book, but it is a disheartening end when you’ve followed a character make bad decision after bad decision, fuck someone new every time as a coping mechanism, and then never learn anything. It’s not even that Palma has “lost her way”; it’s that at forty-something she has never found it. If that’s not a depressing thought, I don’t know what is.
One last note: there are two instances of sexual assault in this book (one with a man, another with a woman), both of which were dealt with (in my opinion) in a relatively dismissive way. The scene with the man especially was fairly graphic, and then there was little mention of it afterwards, which disturbed me. Palma does enact revenge on the woman, although this is after continuing to date her (mostly for her money) for months. I was pretty uncomfortable with how the book dealt with this.