boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
BOOK REVIEW

A good look beyond Miami's glitz

Everyone in Miami knows Ricky Biscayne, the Latin pop sensation who's about to cross over into the mainstream music scene.

He's the center of an emotional and professional spider web that connects various women in Miami. There's Jill Sanchez, the Latina actress and singer who also owns a line of perfumes and designer clothes. There's Irene Gallagher, a single mother who juggles her fire fighting job and the care of her 15-year-old daughter, Sophia, who looks too much like the Latin heartthrob she dated in high school. And there's Milan Gotay, a frumpy laxative publicist and diehard fan of Ricky who happens to be investing in her sister Geneva's new South Beach nightclub.

Their connection to Ricky is the foundation for the humorous ``Make Him Look Good," the third novel by former Boston Globe writer Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez.

As in her two previous novels, ``The Dirty Girls Social Club" and ``Playing With Boys," Valdes-Rodriguez delves into the lives and backgrounds of today's Hispanic women. She shows the reader how different and yet how similar these women are despite being Puerto Rican or Cuban, fair-skinned or dark, blond or raven-haired.

But the other character of the book could easily be said to be Miami. Valdes-Rodriguez captures the city's unsung colorful communities from a native's point of view. She takes the reader to the poor farming community of Homestead, just south of Miami, where Irene struggles to pay her bills on time and raise a teenager.

The author also brings the reader to Allapattah, the working-class neighborhood of mostly black Cubans that often gets overshadowed by Little Havana. It's obvious Valdes-Rodriguez spent some time in Miami, studying the neighborhoods beyond South Beach's Art Deco decadence.

In some chapters, she burrows into a taboo topic in Miami and probably elsewhere in the country: racism among Hispanics. She shows both sides of the story. Throughout lunch at a restaurant, Milan's family frowns on her sister Geneva 's dating a black Cuban. Valdes-Rodriguez later shows how his family initially disapproves of his dating Geneva, a Cuban who resembles Penelope Cruz.

She also gives a quick nod to South Florida's lesbian community and the lack of clubs that cater to it, a chronic problem there. This subplot is sketched humorously through a gay Miami features writer named Lilia who reports on celebrities, and through a surprise cameo appearance by one of the characters from ``The Dirty Girls Social Club."

The book moves briskly and easily, with each chapter narrated by a different character . But realizing who is who can be difficult; there are no subheadings to explain who is speaking, as there were in the author's previous novels.

Milan's character and that of firefighter Irene resonate the most. They are two everyday single working women trying to find happiness in their jobs and in love. They seem the most natural and real, in contrast to the name-dropping and celebrity-look-alike characters such as the self-branding Jill (an obvious takeoff of Jennifer Lopez) and Ricky , described as a ringer for Antonio Banderas.

Through its colorful narrators, ``Make Him Look Good" looks at what lies underneath Miami's beautiful shell. Valdes-Rodriguez digs deep into the city and serves up its authentic, diverse flavors, like a good helping of black beans and white rice. It's enough to make the reader want to visit and get to know the real communities of Miami beyond Ricky 's glamorous South Beach.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives