Angelica’s Daughters

Angelica's DaughtersAngelica’s Daughters by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Susan Evangelista, Veronica Montes, Nadine Sarreal, Erma M. Cuizon
Publisher: Anvil
Number of pages: 201 pages
My copy: paperback, birthday gift from Ariel

Angelica’s Daughters is a collaborative novel by five established Filipina writers, called a “dugtungan.” A dugtungan is a genre of Tagalog novel popular early in the 20th century, in which each writer creates a chapter and hands it off to the next, who writes another chapter without direction. The result, in this case, is an ensemble performance that contains something of the exhilaration of theatrical improv. One watches these accomplished authors inventively weave a historical romance, creating gripping heroines and turns of plot, crossing decades and national boundaries, tapping into cultural roots of the Philippines, Spain and America. Reading Angelica’s Daughters is a gripping experience.~ Brian Ascalon Roley, Author of American Son (W.W. Norton)

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One time during junior year in high school, my friends and I started scribbling on spare pieces of notebook paper. It was a story about a group of friends that we started passing around our group, leaving a part hanging so the next person could continue the story. We never finished the story, but I remember we had a colorful cast of characters, and I ended up continuing the story and posting a snippet of it somewhere that I cannot remember for the life of me. Anyway, we also had the same kind of exercise during my college literary folio days — one would start a story and then another would pick it up. I adopted that exercise for our NaNoWriMo group, and although it never really flew, it was a fun project.

So that’s really one of the reasons why I was curious about Angelica’s Daughters. This book is a collaborative “dugtungan” novel by five authors: Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Susan Evangelista, Veronica Montes, Nadine Sarreal, Erma M. Cuizon. They are all writers on their own but their friendship (and writing classes) led them to collaborate on different short stories. One day they decided to upgrade into writing a novel, passing on an idea and a chapter to one another, until they came up with the story of Angelica.

Angelica’s Daughters revolved around three female descendants of Angelica de los Santos. First was Tess, whose 8 years of marriage dissolved after she found out her husband Tonio has left his mens wedding ring behind and was dating a younger woman. She flies home to the Philippines to gather her thoughts and herself and spends time with her Lola Josefina. Josefina had secrets of her own, one that she wasn’t sure that her granddaughter (or anyone else in the family would understand). In the course of Tess’ stay, a cousin gives her a bundle of letters from their Angelica, a distant grandmother who was the subject of many of her childhood stories. They were never really sure if all those stories about Angelica were real or not — like how a guy killed himself when Angelica refused to give him her love, or how wives were often jealous of her because of her beauty. Through the letters, Tess got to know her better but there were holes in the story that she longed to be filled. On the annual Tayabas fiesta, Tess meets her younger cousin, Dina, who carries a darker secret that is eating her alive.

As I was thinking of how I was going to review this book, I realized one thing: Angelica’s Daughters could pass as a perfect comfort read. It’s like the local version of a Sarah Addison Allen novel, but maybe even a bit better because it hits closer to home for me. There’s a certain grace and lyricism in the prose that makes me immediately sink into it, and marvel at the familiar feelings it evoked. There’s really something about a well-written Filipino work that just hits the right spot, like how a perfectly cooked dish can satisfy the strongest craving. Case in point, this particular line:

She served herself generously from the garlic fried rice and daing. She took her first bite and closed her eyes with pleasure.

I totally started salivating for garlic fried rice and daing (dried salted fish, for my non-Filipino friends) after I read this line. :) The entire novel had that feel of home that made it such a good comfort read.

Besides that, the book also had an interesting angle of history. This kind of reminds me a bit of old history readings in school, or watching movies based on Philippine history. Note that it didn’t really have the “required reading for school” feel, but it provided a sense of nostalgia for the early Spanish era in Philippine history. Angelica’s letters to her aunt and her stories were vivid and she felt very much alive in those letters. She may not be the nicest or the most honest character, but she is a well-formed character that it’s hard not to be curious about her as the book goes on.

I had a few nitpicks though. For one thing, I felt that Lola Josefina’s angle wasn’t really that explored, up until she admitted her secret to Tess. I wasn’t even aware that she was the third person in the story until I finally figured it out. Also, I thought Dina was introduced a little too late in the story, almost like she was an afterthought, like she was only there to be the receiver of Tess’ wrath.

Also, there was the dreaded insta-love. I wished there wasn’t an insta-love thing between Tess and Luis — I could accept Tess liking/lusting after him during the first time she met him and danced with him in the disco, but the idea of her falling in love with him felt a little too quick for me. I was never a fan of insta-love, anyway, and personally, I would’ve been fine if Tess ended up not having a love life in the end. After all, she still had to find herself after her marriage disintegrated.

Nevertheless, I thought Angelica’s Daughters was a well-written and enjoyable novel that deals with family, love and moving on from past mistakes. It’s chick lit, but it’s not really hardcore fluffy chick lit that I think even guys will like to read this. Plus that recipe for Angelica’s special tsokolate-espeso is a must-try. This is one of the good ones in Filipino fiction, and I hope more Filipinos get to read this book. :)

Rating: [rating=3]

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