The House of Broken Angels is the story of two days and of a lifetime. It’s a beautiful novel about family; about pain, sorrow, and regret; about love, forgiveness, and perseverance. The de la Cruz family is gathering for two momentous events: the funeral of Mama America and the 70th birthday of Big Angel, Mama’s oldest son and patriarch of the extended de la Cruz clan. Yet, as everyone knows, this will be Big Angel’s last birthday; cancer has wracked his body and he has very little time left. Author Luis Alberto Urrea takes us into the minds of Big Angel and his family as they prepare for a wake, a party and another death.
Big Angel, Miguel Angel de la Cruz, is a larger than life type of person who has the love and respect of his family. Big Angel was born and raised in Mexico, the oldest of three children to Don Antonio and Mama America. When his father left the family and moved north to California, Big Angel eventually followed and worked hard to make a life in the San Diego area. While Don Antonio took up with a blond-haired blue eyed Betty from the Midwest and had another son named Gabriel Angel (aka Little Angel), Big Angel went back to find the love of his youth Perla, and brought her, her two sons, and her sisters north to the US. Big Angel reflects on the life he has created there with Perla and their children Lalo and Minnie, and while he has much to be proud of, he is also now struggling with doubt and his impending death. He is intensely aware of his shortcomings now, of all the ways in which he failed his mother, his wife, his children and siblings.
The relationship between Big Angel and Little Angel is central to the story. They shared the same father but had very different experiences of that man and of growing up. For Big Angel, Don Antonio was a symbol of authority and respect. The father he knew in Mexico was a police officer with a motorcycle, a man known and revered in the community. Yet he abandoned his community and his family for something else up north. For Little Angel, Don Antonio was a piano player in a bar and a harsh disciplinarian who never seemed satisfied with anything Little Angel did. Little Angel is now a college literature professor in Seattle. He spent a bit of time with Big Angel and his family in his youth, but was never fully embraced by them, given that his mother took Don Antonio away from them and Little Angel is part “gringo”. He feels that he is not Mexican enough for them and that he is not white enough for most Americans.
The bond of family and the willingness to expand the idea of who makes up your family is a theme that pervades The House of Broken Angels. This novel is full of colorful characters, many of whom any reader would recognize from their own dysfunctional family reunions. One of my favorites is Big Angel’s nephew Marcos, aka “The Satanic Hispanic,” who uses a Cookie Monster-type voice in his death metal band and also when ordering pancakes at IHOP. Ookie is a neighbor with special needs who shows up at family events and is treated as part of Big Angel’s family. Big Angel’s daughter Minnie is the one who is always there, the one who helps Big Angel bathe and use the toilet, and who sometimes feels the brunt of his anger and frustration but rolls with it. I love her. La Gloriosa is Perla’s younger sister, and although she is in her 60s she is still a looker, able to turn heads when she enters a room, while Paz is the crazy aunt whom everyone fears and avoids.
A number of conflicts arise in this novel, some between characters and some between Big Angel’s past and his present. The fates of Perla’s two sons by her previous marriage are always in the background of the story but not fully addressed until the end of the novel at Big Angel’s birthday party. It is at this party that all of the conflicts come to a head, some humorously and some dramatically. The House of Broken Angels is a wonderful, thoughtful reflection on life lived imperfectly but with love.