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The Smell of Old Lady Perfume

El Paso Times

Young-adult story 'Old Lady Perfume' deals with issues of many age groups


First-time novelist Claudia Guadalupe Martínez makes her remarkable debut with "The Smell of Old Lady Perfume", a touching study of the heartaches that befall an 11-year-old girl living in El Paso's historic Segundo Barrio.

It's the first day of sixth grade, and Chela Gonzalez is ready to start the year at the peak of the elementary school hierarchy. With best friend Nora at her side (they're inseparable "like melted cheese on tortilla chips") and loving parents who value education, Chela's path to success is secure.

But then everything collapses when "something (goes) wrong inside Apá." Distraught over her father's illness, Chela stays home for a week. By the time she does begin the sixth grade, it's a hostile welcome: Nora has joined mean girl Camila and her "clones," who subject her to ridicule whenever her Spanish "popped through like slices of color on a yellow wall that'd been painted white."

To make matters worse, Chela's body has begun to change in noticeable places, which makes her feel like "some sort of ugly caterpillar turning into an even uglier moth." Friendless and image-conscious, she must bear her burdens alone, sitting in "the ugly leftover chair."

So she looks to her father for hope. Apá's recovery is slow, even though he "doubled up on garlic and started drinking Chinese herbal tea." But a new goal sparks his motivation to keep living: He's determined to build the family their own house before he succumbs to his sickness and its "smell of old lady perfume, of dying flowers and alcohol."

Suddenly the tide turns: Chela's academic skills and athletic prowess are recognized, even by Camila, who invites her to be part of the in crowd, and Apá seems to be getting better. But Chela, at her early age, learns the hard way that appearances deceive, and that nothing as precious as family, friendship, health and happiness should be taken for granted.

Martínez has crafted a beautiful and heartfelt journey of a girl who "wasn't supposed to see" so much, but who "saw all kinds of things." Young readers, especially those navigating difficult issues such as poverty, illness, isolation, depression and death, will find a friend in Chela Gonzalez, a typical sixth-grader who learns to find strength from within in order to transcend the many troubles outside her control.

Adult readers will also catch a glimpse of the important struggles within the immigrant and border communities such as monitoring diet, trusting modern medicine, and encountering insensitivity to those "born on the other side," that is, Juárez.

"The Smell of Old Lady Perfume" is a necessary book for anyone who needs to know that the universe isn't "so large and empty."

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