Like Son, Felicia Luna Lemus (Akashic Books)
Frank Cruz (born Francisca), the narrator of queer Chicana author Felicia Luna Lemus' Like Son, is the kind of character you want to hang out with. Indeed, from the beginning, Frank treats the reader as an intimate with asides like, "It probably won't immediately impresses you," or "Okay, please don't laugh."
He is razor sharp, sagacious, vulnerable and a devoted Romeo. He is also saddled with the enormous burden of a family legacy he has no choice but to embrace.
Frank warns the reader before describing his mother: "A word of caution: Anything and everything I say about my mother will most likely seem unbelievable." A beautiful and successful plastic surgeon in Southern California, she can barely find a place to sleep in her mansion because of all the clutter she refuses to discard. After years of failing to fix the septic system has caused sewage to seep in through the showers, her upstairs bathroom no longer functions.
When Frank was young and known as Francisca, his mother managed to revoke his father's custody and instead moved him into a house with a stepfather who did drugs and molested her at night.
Like Son begins with a reunification between Frank and his birth father, a blind man who is stricken with cancer. The two develop a strong bond, and for a birthday gift, his father takes out a clothbound book of poems that artist Nahui Olin gave to Frank's grandmother years ago back in Mexico. The inscription reads: "My love, 'She went through me like a pavement saw.' Yours as ever for the revolution, Nahui."
Included with the book is a picture of Nahui by famed photographer Edward Weston (the photo also graces Like Son's cover), and Frank thinks, "The subject of the portrait just might have been the human incarnation of sex itself."
While still processing this discovery and relishing that this beautiful woman was his grandmother's "secret lover," Frank also discovers more about his father's own tortured history with women.
After his father dies, Frank relocates to New York City and begins a new life. In the tradition of his grandmother and father, the "Cruz tradition," he falls for his own "fire-eyed girl," a woman named Nathalie. The two enjoy seven years of relative happiness and calm before Sept. 11 rocks the city, Nathalie and their relationship to the core. Frank, left to pick up the pieces, turns to the memory of his father and Nahui's poetry for guidance.
With prose as sharp and engaging as Frank himself, Lemus' writing captures a range of experiences and landscapes, including New York City on that fateful September morning ("The crisp blue sky came tumbling down"); Frank's family's migration to Chicago through a government-indentured program for laborers ("The living and working conditions were barely one step from slavery"); and the complex loyalty a child can feel toward an abusive parent ("My move toward independence was like that of a kid who said he was going to run away and then went and pitched a tent in the backyard instead").
But, ultimately, it is Frank's take on love (and the loss of it) that is so arresting: "The girl got me directly in the chest. Ribs simply shouldn't be cracked open and separated by a layperson. Cardiac matter shouldn't be touched but in the most pristine environments. Even then, complications are likely to occur."
If you enjoy Like Son, check out Lemus' first book, Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties (Farrar Straus Giroux). It has a similar urban-edged charm. Neither will disappoint.