Mónica Lavin reviews David Unger's Para mí eres divina/In My Eyes, You Are Beautiful

Mónica Lavín's glowing review of David Unger's Para mí eres divina. To read more about the novel, click here

Coffee Trees and Asphalt
Mónica Lavín

David Unger has chosen an unsettling phrase, In my Eyes, You Are Beautiful, as the title of his new novel set both in his birthplace Guatemala and in Mexico. The novel spans two decades, from 1970 to 1990, and coincides with one of the most terrible periods in Guatemalan history. At the center of the novel is Olivia, a truly fascinating creature, in whose skin the author swims like a fish in water; in the background is rural Guatemala, the coffee plantations where Olivia lives and which also allow her to experience her country's armed conflict from a distance. In my Eyes, You Are Beautifulis an unsettling title not only because it is intriguing but also because it doesn't reveal the world it will depict. Will this be a love story? Well, yes, there is a love angle but it's simply one facet of the life of Olivia, a girl who works in the fields next to her mother, picking coffee beans barefoot along steep slopes, until Sister Carina tears her away from her mother and places her in a Catholic school. This kindness flies in the face of the custom of the poor forced to work side by side their parents and not attend school and gives her the opportunity to change her destiny. Guayito, Olivia's younger brother doesn't have this chance so he, like her mother, curses Olivia's stroke of luck, her ambition and her sensibility. Olivia is made to feel that she has betrayed her family when she consents to improve her life by seeking a better education. "…she was surrounded in the school by thousands of books instead of thousands of coffee beans..."

David Unger has created an unforgettable female protagonist. Isn't this what a novel aspires to do? Olivia is shy, but strong; unattractive but sensual; she feels guilt, but is angry at her family for abandoning her. She wants to love and be loved, to be made of flesh and blood; we identify with her through the author's natural, fluid prose which, also, has some powerful, startling images.

I'm also impressed by how David Unger handles Olivia's desires throughout the novel and her life: from her teenage sexual stirrings, to her first passionate explorations, to her frankly enjoyable sexual encounters with the men in her life. If we sometimes wonder—incorrectly of course--, if a female writer can see the world from the opposite sex and vice versa, In My Eyes, You Are Beautiful proves that what matters most is the story line because Olivia is so very much Olivia that we never suspect that a man has created her with her intimate desires, her way of interpreting the world and her friendship with other women.  

This novel depicts the change of life, from the coffee fields around Ciudad Vieja in Guatemala to the Golden Years of Mexico City's Zona Rosa, where Olivia's life improves while the world she has left behind sinks into misery and disgrace and her friend Meme, a beacon of light, becomes one of the thousands of silenced victims.

In a way, the portrait of Olivia's life reveals to us a sinister reality and the contrast between those who have power and those who don't, and the impending bloodshed. David Unger bears witness to these years, as Olivia emerges from darkness as her native country plunges into it. In the end, she is, finally, a survivor.