At a dramatic point in Alfonso Cuaron’s new Oscar-nominated film, Roma, Sofia, turns to her maid, Cleo, and says, “We’re alone. We’re all alone.” Her husband, Antonio, has moved in with his mistress. Cleo is pregnant and her lover disappeared immediately after she told him. Two women, from opposite ends of the class system in Mexico City, are left alone with the responsibility of the household and children. Meanwhile, their “significant others” neglect their responsibilities to pursue their own selfish interests. It’s a situation women around the world too often confront. One that begs the question: why do women even bother with love and relationships? That’s the burning question at the core of Ivelisse Rodriguez’s debut short story collection, Love War Stories.
The nine stories explore and deconstruct the myths and tropes associated with love. Rodriquez does not paint pretty pictures about love. These are gritty, raw and cynical tales about the vagaries of love and sex which recall Pat Benatar’s famous war cry: Love is a battlefield. In the hands of a less talented writer, this topic could degenerate into bitter, clichéd storytelling. Rodriguez, however, populates these stories with sharp and wise Latinas and infuses the narrative with humor and realism. That she also situates universal stories within a Latinx, and more specifically Puerto Rican, context adds a refreshing twist to the collection. More so, because she subverts those stories as they typically play out in Latinx culture.
The title story, “Love War Stories,” serves as a fulcrum for the collection. It establishes the battlefield, maps out minefields, and draws the combatants. In this case, they are not necessarily men and women. It’s more generational: mothers vs. daughters. It’s partisan: Non-believers vs. believers of love like Rosie Garcia, who has not yet experienced love and heartbreak. Something that her mother, the other mothers, and Rosie’s three friends have.
The mothers warn the daughters to “never trust a man” because he “only wants one thing and as soon as he gets it, he’ll be gone.” Their advice is conventional, yet cynical; resigned, yet resistant: “Marry, but don’t believe.” As a cautionary tale, they offer a yellowed newspaper clipping from the fifties. It’s about Carmencita. a fifteen year old girl from the island, who went missing after an unchaperoned outing with four boys, including her boyfriend.
Rosie and friends fight this war throughout high school, as their mothers, especially hers, attempt to prevent them from dating boys and sex. At college, Rosie’s friends suffer breakups with boyfriends they meet at school. On returning, they resign themselves to their moms’ viewpoint. Rosie is the lone holdout, still believing in the traditional view of love. She’s willing to continue fighting despite the “Decimated hearts…a battlefield of wounded soldiers.” Upset with Rosie’s continued efforts, Mrs. Garcia beats her. She warns “this was the way men would beat [her].” With each stroke, she tells stories depicting the plight of “las mujeres” throughout history.
Her friends eventually turn against her, because they understand her mother’s pain. Finally, Rosie confronts her father in an attempt to understand how after twenty-six years he could leave her mother. Of course, her father has no definitive answer. He surmises, “Love gets forgotten in the daily living.”
The other stories expound on the ephemeral nature of love. But they do so from the perspective of Latinas living through the pain of that reality. Whether it’s abandoned Tia Lola in “El Que Dirán,” waiting for her husband to return while confronting the social stigma that represents, or the obsessive Belinda stalking her ex and his new girlfriend in “The Belindas.” Or when such heartbreak leads the narrator in “Some Springs Girls Do Die” to muse on the routine in a day a girl completes suicide. “The Simple Truth” focuses on Puerto Rican literary icon, Julia de Burgos, the archetype of the bohemio’s mistress. Independent and artistic, this is a woman whom the male artist or professional of that generation (including the narrator’s father) could love for her beauty and intellect without commitment or responsibility.
Rodriguez’s women may be victims, but they certainly do not act as such. The stories reveal desperate women, but they are never passive. Their agency can be farcical as in the title story, or comical like in “La Hija de Changó,” where Xaviera and her three friends search for the meaning of love through Santeria. Or it can turn violent as with Veronica, in “Holyoke, Mass: An Ethnography,” who beats up a rival for her unfaithful boyfriend’s affections. Her action is more emblematic of the problem. She has inherited a social role which she plays with apprehension and ignorance, because “Girls will be girls.”
Human beings tend to channel their biological imperative to reproduce through the cultural mythology of love. In this collection, Ivelisse Rodriguez has done a superb job of representing the failings of that process. Like any intelligently written book, Love War Stories raises critical questions about its subject matter. In this case, why do we continue to approach love from archaic, patriarchy-driven tropes and myths? Especially, when they often fail our expectations and women are usually left with more than the loneliness.