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Highly stylized writing much like the mambo itself

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  • Walter Lippmann
    BOOK REVIEW Highly stylized writing much like the mambo itself
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2005
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      BOOK REVIEW

      Highly stylized writing much like the mambo itself
      By Cristina Elías
      Sentinel Staff Writer

      May 1, 2005

      Decades from now, when pop-culture historians have glamorized the New York
      City Latin-dance scene of the 1990s and the Copacabana joins the Palladium
      in New York mythology, old-time dancers will dust off Patricia Chao's Mambo
      Peligroso (which means "Dangerous Mambo") and be back in the small
      working-class dramas of the barrio instantly.

      If not quite composing the song of the street, Chao has managed to knit
      together a gritty-enough tune that both expert and novice dancers will have
      no trouble following. The only question is: Where is it going?

      Chao, a dancer who performed with the group Casa de la Salsa, captures New
      York's dance clubs -- the buffets, the "working girls," the grotesque
      characters and dark moods -- in intense detail. Yet, with its one-eyed men
      and Spanglish-inflected speeches, the book stops just short of turning its
      inhabitants into caricatures.

      Like a dance, Mambo Peligroso -- which follows Chao's well-received debut
      novel Monkey King -- is highly stylized. True to form, it cleverly steps up
      the narrative like an ever-increasing tempo, as Chao's heroine, Catalina
      Ortiz Midori, a Japanese-Cuban emigre, goes from novice dancer to expert
      mambera in her search for her roots and self-confidence.

      This journey of discovery takes the shy teacher of English as a second
      language though the sweaty world of New York clubs, back through a painful
      divorce and eventually south to her childhood love in Miami, and to her
      inner strength in Cuba.

      Like a master choreographer, Chao punctuates each chapter with the voice and
      story of a different character, using subtitles drawn from dance axioms to
      lead the way. "Half of dancing is listening," for example, or "know at all
      times where your partner is in relation to you" guide the reader through
      Catalina's immersion in the dance world, her affair with her dance teacher,
      El Tuerto, and her journey back to her family.

      Along the way, however, the book loses its insight into the main character.
      Like fancy turns on the dance floor, the plot twists around an assassination
      attempt on Fidel Castro, becoming more and more exaggerated and wild,
      following the structure of the danzón, the traditional Cuban musical form.
      But the window into the character's inner life that was present in the first
      part of the book disappears.

      Too concerned with the outside structure, Chao fails to have enough
      character exposition and inward pauses in the second half of the book.
      Despite a touching, formalistic closing chapter in the voice of El Tuerto,
      the second half of Mambo Peligroso leaves the reader who has connected with
      the tentative, shy heroine feeling disoriented when the music stops.

      Highly talented and ambitious, Chao simply forgets her own maxim, which
      heads chapter 24: "There comes a time to forget what you've learned." When
      she remembers to forget again, great things will come.

      Cristina Elías can be reached at celias@... or 407-931-5942.

      Copyright © 2005, Orlando Sentinel
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