There's a moment two-thirds into Patricia Engel's impressive first novel, Vida, her book of linked stories about an alternately hard-boiled and vulnerable young woman of privilege, where the protagonist's soul tips toward the abyss. "I learned from my mother, the retired beauty queen," says Sabina Rios, a smart, desirable Latina from a well-to-do Jersey suburb, "that how well a woman speaks with her eyes is what separates the amateurs from the pros. I look at your girl and then at you, feeling your eyes as I slip into the crowd. If she didn't already know we're sleeping together, she does now."
Up to this point, we've witnessed Sabina's nearly stoic struggles since childhood to unobtrusively make her way (as much as a woman with a crippling weakness for beautiful, wild boys can) in a noir-like world of youth, where maturity means becoming a walking collection of past hurts and helpless resignations. But here, in this bar in Miami, we're seeing her harden into something nasty, ultimately driven by nothing but her self-absorption and disappointment.
Thanks to Engel's unsentimental approach toward Sabina (allowing her to be unlikable), her chiseled prose (precise and unforgiving as a boxer's jab) and her tender knowledge that yearning for meaning sometimes breathes under the thickest hides, Vida becomes more than a front seat to Sabina's dark metamorphosis. We sense that despite the circumstances, there might be hope for Sabina yet.
But Engel won't allow hope to come easy, nor should she. Sabina drifts from New Jersey to Colombia and New York City to Florida, cognizant that the big moments (love and death) don't feel momentous, while the smaller ones — a conversation at a diner, a forlorn meeting a gazebo — sandblast our hearts. The opportunities life has afforded her seem like poisoned gifts. She comes from a successful immigrant family from Colombia, yet being a brown-skinned Latina marks her as an outsider in her white community, as does her uncle's murder of her aunt.
She's highly attractive, but from an early age beauty has only exposed her to lechery and opened her eyes to a world of predation. ("Randy, who you befriended in French class, was molested by her stepfather and became a straight-A student who vacuumed her room five times a day. And Nicole, who you knew from horseback riding, had a boyfriend whose uncle raped him his whole life.") Even having the luck to have escaped death on Sept. 11 (she calls in sick to work that day) carries no joy. Her perished co-workers' "survival is certainly worth more than mine. It's hard to feel grateful knowing I should have been with them today. And that I cheated."
What does it all add up to? The last third of Vida portrays Sabina's stumble toward something like wisdom, encountering the novel's title character, a young Colombian woman who is truly damaged, and gaining a much needed perspective. Sabina is forced to either shape her life into something better or allow it to drain of any meaning. Engel's feat is she makes us care by showing how easily we can stiffen into the person we never wanted to be.