Mary Castillo emailed me with a request to review her book, and after reading the first chapter I accepted. Castillo writes in a unique voice and I was immediately pulled into the life of her main character, Dori Orihuela.
Castillo writes with a distinct sense of place. I’ve spent a lot of time in Southern California, and this book made me feel like I was there, even though I’ve never been to National City, which is near San Diego.
Dori is a San Diego police officer who has just been suspended after an attempted arrest where she was shot and then returned fire and killed the shooter – a young woman with two children right in the room. Dori is viewed largely as a hero by her fellow officers, as the woman opened fire first and might have killed the other officers and even her own children. However, she is haunted by what happened.
Dori is recuperating in a house she bought just before the arrest, a fixer-upper Edwardian mansion about 120 years old. On her first day back from the hospital, she walks up to the door and sees a strange man in the house. She and the police search the house but find no one. Dori’s already on the verge of a breakdown so the fact that she’s seeing strange, disappearing men in her creaky old house doesn’t alarm the police too much.
She wasn’t one of those women went crying to their girlfriends with her broken heart. She sure as hell wasn’t one of those cops who lost it on the job or even in the ladies room. She was the tough Orihuela her grampy had molded her to be; that her fellow officers respected and admired for keeping a cool head, returning fire and allowing two kids, her partner and a social worker to walk out of that apartment unscathed.
She grasped at the broken pieces of who she had been. But they slipped through her fingers. She wasn’t supposed to be this sniveling, crying, weak woman. She’d done her duty.
But she’d taken a life. Good or bad, it didn’t matter right now. She had a mother’s blood on her hands and it was unraveling who she had been to the point where she now saw “make-believe” men running through her house.
It takes Dori a little while to accept that there’s a ghost in her house. Then she “sees” the horrible death of Vicente Sorolla, a bootlegger from the 30’s, in her front parlor.
What follows is Vicente’s story, but one thing I really liked about this book is that it’s very much Dori’s story as well, and even about the strange friendship between them (no, this is not a paranormal romance). So many past-present stories just use the present as a storytelling device, but Castillo has created a really multi-dimensional, sympathetic character in Dori. If anything, I think Vicente’s character could have been strengthened. But I liked this book because it’s a rare past-present story where the present story is always relevant.
In fact, Vicente’s story spurs Dori to get out of her own head and meet new people and learn new things. Dori is struggling on every level, trying to be a decent daughter and grand-daughter, a friend, and possibly something more with the sexy handyman — yes, the sexy handyman is a bit of a cliché but at least here it’s a guy she actually dumped in high school. She’s also trying to put her head back together after the shooting and get back to the job she loves. And she’s trying to help her ghost friend find out what happened to the woman he left behind.
What I really liked about Dori: she messes up a lot. She’s sort of a compulsive liar (you might be too if you lived with a ghost), her emotions are a mess, and she has no idea what she’s doing most of the time. But you still admire her strength and character. I also liked the way Castillo isn’t just telling a story, she’s really created a past and present for this character that goes beyond the ghost story. For example we learn a lot about Dori’s rebellious youth, her troubled relationship with her mother, and her love for her grandfather who died when she was young.
As you can tell from the name, the Orihuelas are Latina, and Dori’s family and culture permeate the book, which I really appreciated. If I were to count, I probably read mostly white authors and it’s always good to realize there are other points of view, other ways of thinking about things.
Without giving away anything, I really appreciated the way Castillo wraps up the story without relying on ridiculous coincidences like so many books do (for example, Dori does not find out that her beloved grandfather is the long-lost adopted son of Vicente). At one point Dori’s grandmother thinks she might have known Vicente’s sister, but it turns out she’s mistaken. That’s the kind of detail (and plot messiness) that I appreciate.
A couple of weaknesses are worth noting although they didn’t keep me from enjoying the book. The first is that the level of historical detail is pretty light. This is a story about Vicente, his family, and the woman he loves. There’s a lot of local detail about National City and Southern California, but I didn’t come away from this book having a good sense of the history of bootlegging, or even the mechanics of it. We do learn that the end of Prohibition is right around the corner in 1932 — but if you want a detailed history, see the Burns documentary on Prohibition. What we do see, though, is how easy it must have been for a poor kid like Vicente to get caught up in the world of organized crime in the 30’s.
Another weakness is that Vicente isn’t too likeable most of the time. He may love Anna but he treats her pretty badly after she’s forced to marry a man to support her family financially. He’s full of bravado and pride, and gets caught up in power and money. He’s sympathetic, just not always likeable.
Also, Castillo keeps the logistics of Vicente’s ghost-hood fuzzy, and that could drive some readers a little crazy. Neither Dori nor Vicente have any idea why Vicente’s stuck in the house, when he can talk to Dori and when he can’t. Has he talked to other residents of the house in the past 80 years? There’s no explanation of why he appears to Dori only after her shooting. Sometimes Vicente’s presence includes smells of cologne and alcohol, and sometimes cold air. And what’s that Shadow thing in the parlor? Vicente’s comings and goings are confusing, especially later in the book:
Truth was he didn’t know where he went. He had no control when he woke up and fell asleep. All he knew was that he’d been consumed with pain and humiliation when he was in the front parlor and he sure as hell didn’t want that again.
Those things aside, this was a fun and satisfying read, with a good mix of history, culture, drama and friendship. If you like a good ghost story, you’ll appreciate this one.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for a review. The author had no input into the content of this review.