Luis Alberto Urrea casts a magic spell with The House of Broken Angels, weaving a rich and humanistic tapestry depicting three generations of a Mexican-American family in San Diego over a scant 315 pages. A fecund, vivacious story that drifts with willful abandon from one character in the de La Cruz family to another, The House of Broken Angels positions itself around the 70th birthday party of Big Angel, the dying family patriarch who has just buried his mother. But while the central narrative occurs over just a few days, Urrea captures entire lifetimes in his stirring and life-affirming novel.

Deftly balancing pathos and humor, The House of Broken Angels is a celebration of family and life, especially in difficult times. Big Angel, dying of cancer, is physically no longer the lion that sits at the head of the table at family meals. His body is failing and he relies on his wife and daughter to dress him, help him into his wheelchair and assist him in the bathroom. Yet, Big Angel is determined to end his life with a party, allowing the disparate members of his family to celebrate his inevitable passing rather than mourn as he crumbles away.

Urrea throws the reader into the deep end when introducing the various members of Big Angel’s family, allowing us to slowly learn through inference just how everyone is related rather than spoon-feeding this information. When Little Angel, Big Angel’s half-brother, comes down from Seattle to attend the party, he tries to sketch out all the connections for himself in a little notebook. It’s easy to imagine Urrea laughing at all the books that begin with a family tree during these scenes. Why not allow things to happen naturally?

The once contentious relationship between Big Angel and Little Angel, who is a literature professor, is the central conflict in the novel. Big Angel’s father left his family to be with Little Angel’s mother, a white American. Little Angel is racially stranded. His friends in Seattle see him as Mexican, his Mexican family considers him white. He has had a long-complicated relationship with Big Angel, one that Urrea explores with a sensitive eye. Big Angel sees Little Angel as the product of a father who abandoned him. Little Angel is still traumatized by the emotional and physical violence Big Angel inflicted on him when they were younger, including a broken nose. It is a relationship that yearns to be mended before Big Angel finally succumbs to cancer.

Big Angel represents the American Dream, working his way up from nothing to secure a good job working with computers and buying a house in the suburbs. He does so from hard work, an ethos he had hoped to pass onto to his children. Yet, it seems each of them has gone their own direction. One of his stepsons no longer identifies with their birth gender, while the other had been shot to death during gang violence. Big Angel’s son, Lalo, is scarred by his time in Iraq and is addicted to drugs. Meanwhile, his daughter Minnie had abandoned her life to care for him as he dies from cancer.

Though The House of Broken Angels deals with some very heavy subject matter, it is also quite funny, especially when Urrea deploys the various squabbles, grudges and secrets that exist in the de La Cruz family. As the story expands beyond Big Angel, we meet other family members like his sister-in-law, La Gloriosa, an aging woman of fierce sexual energy, and his nephew, Marco, the frontman of a heavy metal band who calls himself “the Satanic Hispanic.” There is also his brother César, whose ducklike voice earns him the nickname “El Pato” and lustily corresponds with women on the internet. The House of Broken Angels is definitely a salacious book at times, but repression is not something from which the de La Cruz clan suffers.

Brimming with life, even in the face of death, The House of Broken Angels shifts the idea of what qualifies as a typical American story. As white dominant culture begins to fade and other voices from the American experience take their rightful place in our country’s narrative fabric, writers such as Urrea are vital to this paradigm change. Even in his final days, Big Angel reflects on his place in the United States and what sort of legacy he will leave for his children and their children. As his party approaches, he begins to make a list for all the things in life for which he has been grateful. Jim Morrison once said, “Death makes angels of us.” No matter the color of our skin, what sort of food we eat, passing on from this life is an experience we all share and we can only hope that we do so with as much grace, humor and dignity as Big Angel exudes in his final moments.

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