In 1995, Christine Bell’s second novel, The Perez Family, was made into a “major motion picture” starring Marissa Tomei, Angelica Huston, and Alfred Molina. But before that, Bell’s first novel, the sweet and quirky Saint, was published by the mom-and-pop Florida publishing house, Pineapple Press.
Despite the greater commercial success of The Perez Family, I found Saint a more poetic, better structured, and more engaging novel. It poses the delicious question: What happens when a sophisticated New Yorker is swept off her feet by a wealthy South American? When Saint opens, the New Yorker, Rubia—protagonist and narrator of the novel—has spent the past fifteen years on a remote hacienda in the jungle with her husband, Frederico, her now-dying mother-in-law, and a sister-in-law she detests. When Rubia discovers Frederico is having an affair, she plots revenge. The results are funny, sexy, and spiced with just the right hint of magical realism.
Essential to the flavor of Bell’s novel is the dense jungle in which it takes place. The jungle is a more than a backdrop to Saint: It is a force. Its oppressive heat, strange sounds, overpowering scents, and essential unknowability shape and color the characters’ lives. When Rubia, miserable from the heat in her early years at the hacienda, asks her mother-in-law if they can get air conditioning, the older woman replies, “You must become acclimated. We are as much a part of the jungle as we are part of this house.” After a bitter argument with her sister-in-law, Rubia says, “I started laughing uncontrollably. I started laughing like the horrible screeching of the unseen birds in the jungle. If heat could speak, it would sound like I did laughing.”
On one level, Saint is about the independence and interdependence of women. In her grief and rage, Rubia finds an arsenal of support. Her supposedly bed-ridden mother-in-law begins to rise from her bed every night to offer her an old woman’s wisdom. Her young daughters show a kindness and empathy beyond their years. And she reaches back to her own New York savvy and spunk to search for a solution to her marital woes.
But Saint also deals with the collision between cultures. It’s not only the conflict between Rubia’s urban American background and Frederico’s rich South American heritage that create the tension here, but the existence of the indigenous people who live in the jungle and hover on the outskirts of the characters’ lives. One of the things I like best about the novel is the subtext that, when cultures collide, the results aren’t always disastrous.They can also be creative and fertile.
Since publication of The Perez Family in 1990, Bell has published only a single, poorly received volume of short stories. I hope there are more novels like Saint in this talented writer. It is a gem.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...