This article is from the February 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Book Review
The Years With Laura Diaz

by Carlos Fuentes

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 516 pp., $26.00

Reviewed by Gale Randall 

Gale Randall, who hails from Palo Alto, California, reviewed books in the June 2000 and November 2000 issues of Mexico File

When I first perused Carlos Fuentes' new novel, The Years With Laura Diaz, I thought: Oh, oh, another book about Frida Kahlo. But not really. Although Frida's inimitable visage gazes out from a famous Diego Rivera mural printed on the book's jacket and she figures as a passing friend of the protagonist Laura Diaz, Frida counts as only a minor player in this monumental and complex saga of 20th century Mexico. 

Opening in Detroit where the character Laura Diaz's Chicano great‑grandson has traveled to film some Diego Rivera murals, and ending with him in Los Angeles, The Years With Laura Diaz has a global scope yet concentrates on the life of one Mexican woman, Laura Diaz, and several generations of her family. Born in 1898 at the turn of the 20th century on her grandparents’ coffee hacienda in Catemaco, Veracruz, Laura Diaz is a sensitive, intelligent woman who bears witness to and is caught up in major events of the 20th century – the Mexican Revolution, the Spanish Civil War and the 1968 massacre of university students at Tlatelolco. Deeply touched by her radical half‑brother Santiago's execution during

the revolution, as a young debutante in Xalapa Laura eschews a future life in society in favor of marriage to a dark‑skinned union organizer. Laura and her husband, Juan Francisco, move to Mexico City where they lead a pleasant though rather pedestrian life and Laura bears two sons. But marriage to Juan Francisco eventually palls and Laura takes up with a sophisticated, arty crowd, some of whom are refugees from Spain's 1930s civil war. It’s this section of the novel that brings to mind the urbane characters and settings of Fuentes’ early and brilliant Mexico City novel, Where the Air is Clear. There’s even a cameo reappearance of the character Artemio Cruz, from Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz.  

Drawing partly from his own family history, Fuentes has peopled Laura Diaz with an intriguing cast of characters, like her maiden aunties, Hilda and Virginia, one of whom writes poetry no one will ever read and another who plays Chopin to empty rooms at the family hacienda in Catemaco – it’s Fuentes’ goal, of course, to have Laura Diaz avoid this fate! But what I like most about this novel is Fuentes’ description of place – no other writer succeeds so well in capturing the essence of Mexico, its sites, sounds and heady aromas. Describing the town of Xalapa, to which Laura’s family retreats after her brother’s death in Veracruz – and a place I knew little about – Fuentes writes: 

"How different Xalapa was. At night, Veracruz retained – and increased – the heat of the day. Xalapa, in the mountains, had warm days and cold nights. Veracruz had swift, rackety storms, but here the rain became fine, persistent, making everything green and filling a central point in the city – the reservoir behind the El Dique dam, always about to overflow, giving an impression of sadness and security at the same time. It was from the flume that the city’s light mist rose to meet the mountain’s thick fog; Laura Diaz is remembering when she first came to Xalapa and noted: cold air – rain and rain – birds – women dressed  in black – beautiful gardens – cast‑iron benches – white statues painted green by the humidity – red tiles – steep narrow streets – market smells and bakeries, wet patios and fruit trees, the aroma of orange trees and the stench of slaughterhouses."

Surviving a failed marriage, the death of loved ones, and love affairs with refugees from both the Spanish Civil War and McCarthyism, Laura Diaz nonetheless emerges as a strong, committed woman. Taking up photography later in her life, she inadvertently captures the horrors of the Tlatelolcol massacre. Through these and other images of everyday life in Mexico, Laura gains renown as an artist, ultimately leaving her own imprint on the century. If you read only one historical novel of 20th century Mexico, Laura Diaz should be it. 

Correction: The travel classic, Quest for the Lost City by Dana and Ginger Lamb, reviewed in the November 2000 issue of Mexico File, is still available. You can order it either through, Adventures Unlimited Press, or the publisher:  George Erikson, 8471 Warwick Dr., Desert Hot Springs, CA 92240‑1124.  ($16.95 plus $2.50 for shipping and handling) 

© 2001 Gale Randall