A marriage falls apart; the father goes one way, the mother goes another, and the kids shuffle back and forth. One parent gets custody of the friendships that were cultivated during the marriage, and the other goes out into the world learning how to make friends all over again. In Better With You Here, the new book from Gwendolyn Zepeda, this old story takes on a new life.
The story begins post-divorce, where we find Natasha Davila and her kids, Alex and Lucia, adjusting to their new life in an apartment building instead of their one family house. The kids are learning the ropes at their new school while Natasha has become accustomed to her return to the workforce.
The ex-husband has already moved on to a sexy new girlfriend, who has time to make home made cupcakes, a fact that Natasha’s kids throw in her face. Add an alcoholic grandmother, who cannot be relied upon to babysit, and you have the makings of a disaster.
Zepeda saves us from disaster by choosing to write in the first person and allowing several characters to have a voice in the telling of the story. Rather than number the chapters, Zepeda names the chapters after the character whose voice we hear as we read. She doesn’t replay incidents from a different point of view, but rather gives us a view that the other characters do not see or know about. Through this device, we see Natasha’s son Alex, having a difficult day at school. We see Natasha in her first foray into post-divorce sex. We also see what’s going on at the babysitter’s house while all the mother’s are out.
The babysitter, Miss Buena’s home becomes the meeting place for Natasha and her new friends. These women, and their children, become important, to Natasha and her kids. The stripper, the poor little rich girl, and the almost paralegal are imperfect people, trying not to judge, while escaping judgment themselves. They also become pawns in the ex-husband’s attempt to wrest custody from Natasha. The story culminates in a hair-raising ride without GPS or cell phone service where a hero is born.
Gwendolyn Zepeda, a Houston native, sets her novels in Texas. Houston, We Have a Problema has a career girl heroine who visits a psychic regularly. Lone Star Legend delves into the world of social media with a heroine who gets in trouble when her anonymous blog causes havoc. Zepeda also has a short story collection, with one of the greatest titles I’ve ever seen, To the Last Man I Slept With and all the Jerks Just Like Him. Sunflowers and Growing up With Tamales are her children’s books.
In her own words, Gwendolyn responds to “What do you like most about being Latina?
The traits and values that our people share, that I admire most, are:
1. Respect for our elders
2. Esteem for the arts
3. Willingness to believe in magic
4. Healthy fear of evil
5. Extreme hospitality
And now I feel the need to disclose that I’m half white. Not because that makes me less Latina, but because I want y’all to know that it makes those parts of our culture stand out against everything else, in my point of view.
Better With You Here will be in bookstores on July 17th.