One simple adjective can sum up the entirety of a book. Of an experience. With a plot richly textured, and characters explored in their absolute fullness, displaying humanity unvarnished, the novel, Beautiful, proves to be just that. Beautiful.
This is the story of two brothers, born and raised in the Mexican village of Merida. Miguel, the younger of the two, enters the world and is almost immediately assigned divine assertions. His physical beauty is awe-inspiring, capturing not only the heart of his family but that of friends and neighbors. In short order, the community rechristens Miguel, “el nino divino.” Miguel has done nothing of great import to warrant this high level of devotion. Yet his beauty is deemed messianic, and he is treated accordingly.
But in the shadows, someone is watching. It is Miguel’s older brother, Santiago. Unnoticed, Santiago quietly takes in the rise of his younger sibling. His feelings toward Miguel are massively complicated. Santiago loves his brother but is jealous of the attention bestowed on him. Santiago wants to protect his brother but he recognizes that Miguel’s powerful beauty, which seems to provide so much pleasure, can also be the source of enormous pain. Santiago realizes rather quickly that in order to simply survive, he must emotionally distance himself from Miguel and the community that worships him. Santiago must live a life that is hidden within plain sight. He has no choice. Divine fate has rendered it so.
There’s so much conflict and family drama in this novel. It’s bursting at the seams. At the heart of it all is the rivalry between Miguel and Santiago, which sets the stage for an incredible series of life events. Miguel’s beauty sucks up all the air in the room. It sucks up most of the air in the story. I believe this is intentional. It helps illuminate the dramatic contrast that exists in Santiago’s quieter, and dare I say, more poignant storyline. Whereas Miguel is born a rockstar, Santiago’s bloom comes much later, and at a higher cost. In the one desire they do share in common- to escape Merida- they choose different solutions. Miguel runs away. Santiago turns to literature. Their choices are quite telling. And Santiago’s choice makes him the more fascinating of the two. Books can be entertaining. And, yes, they are a means of escape. I use them for that exact purpose myself. But if you’re a lonely man, living a lonely existence, with the constraints of your surroundings bearing down on you, perhaps options in addition to reading should be considered as well.
Santiago will eventually catch a glimpse of the world through the eyes of his brother, through an unexpected romance, and of course, through reading literature. And he’ll come to learn that physical beauty has its disadvantages. But, in the end, it will take an act of courage for Santiago to break free of the confines of his chrysalis.
I highly recommend this novel. I love Massimo Cuomo’s writing style. The imagery and magical realism is heavily reminiscent of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And in one scene, Cuomo does give a nod to the venerable author and his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Beautiful is a wonderful novel in its own right. I love how it explores the concept of beauty, and our responses to it. I also appreciated the complicated Moya family dynamic. In almost every scene involving the family, I could sense the past, present, and future playing out simultaneously. Time is fluid, and not necessarily linear. In a moment, a memory rises to the surface, or a deep foreboding is triggered. Cuomo’s use of time in this way is very effective.
Ultimately, what I got from this novel is that the degree to which we can hurt those closest to us can be devastating. Yet, in spite of it all, our love for them remains immeasurable. This is why the willingness to forgive and to be forgiven is such a powerful and supreme sign of grace.
Be well, my fellow bibliophiles, and happy reading.
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