In the opening scene of Marivi Soliven’s prize-winning novel “The Mango Bride,” the long-suffering cook Marcela uses the knife from a plate of mangoes to stab Señora Concha, her employer. Though the narrator immediately assures us that the wound is not fatal, a host of other questions remain. What led the cook to stab her employer? What will happen to the cook? How and why did the cook remain loyal to this despicable woman, who notes dispassionately that the chandelier needs dusting while laid out on the floor after being stabbed?
A recent winner of the Philippines’ highest literary honor, the Palanca Prize, Soliven’s novel travels ambitiously between a host of characters, several chronological points, and two countries (the Philippines and the United States) in order to tell the saga of the Duarté and Guerrero clans. Although the novel alternates between a number of viewpoints, it focuses especially on two women from these clans. Amparo Guerrero, daughter of the wealthy Señora Concha, is exiled to the United States. Beverly Obejas, niece of the cook, Marcela, becomes a mail-order bride in the United States.
Taken together, the portraits reveal the positive and negative sides of an immigrant American dream, unusual (and appealing) in emphasizing success in romantic love over success in material wealth or domestic perfection.
Other characters are especially compelling, including Manong Del, a Filipino-American veteran who befriends Amparo, and Aldo Duarté, Amparo’s uncle, who has also faced exile in the United States. Soliven is particularly skillful in her interweaving of Tagalog and English, using enough Tagalog to anchor the characterization of her Filipino characters and enough English and context to translate for non-Tagalog speakers.
Fans of the telenovela and soap opera, or the Filipino version — the telesrye — will find much to appreciate in “Mango Bride.” As the novel unfolds, so too, does its revelation of shocking family secrets and connections, infidelities and surprise pregnancies. The novel anchors itself in its realistic depictions of Manila and Berkeley, Calif. with special attention to the Hotel Intercontinental in Manila and the renowned Berkeley Bowl market.
Seemingly chance meetings become significant in later chapters. Several cliffhanger moments keep the reader moving quickly between chapters.
In one structural respect, the novel’s reliance on soap opera conventions creates some difficulty. Opening the novel with such a melodramatic peak — a stabbing — makes it difficult for other dramatic scenes to follow, even those with tragic consequences. Because soap opera plots are meant to extend over long periods of time and episodes — and perhaps even reappear later on — they can prove difficult to resolve within the structure of a novel.
A reader might wish for the emotional impact of all the secrets and lies that undergird the novel’s opening to resonate longer than a three-page, concluding scene. Nevertheless, Soliven’s novel is a page-turner that will keep the reader engaged and rewarded until the very end.