Paperback 6x9, 192 pages
ePub ISBN: 978-1-60940-039-2
Kindle ISBN: 978-1-60940-040-8
Library PDF ISBN: 978-1-60940-041-5
Above: Eileen Malone interviews Maria Espinosa about her life and about Dying Unfinished for PEN Women.
Visit Maria's [BLOG].
Read the AI [interview] with Maria Espinosa.
Dying Unfinished is the story of Eleanor's troubled relationship with her daughter, Rosa. At the core of their tension is the illicit affair she has had with her daughter's husband, Antonio. The affair itself is the surface manifestation of deeper turbulence The novel is narrated through both women's voices and covers a span of nearly seventy years, during which the world around them undergoes enormous change.
While it stands alone as a novel, it is connected to Longing (American Book Award). Each novel might be considered as parts of a Rashomon-like sequence in which events are perceived through different characters.
Excerpt from Dying Unfinished:
Dad's manner was eager, almost servile. Yet underneath ran a current of something malign. His face could be like a mask, with an uncanny quality of seeming to change altogether during unguarded moments. Who knew what he was thinking beneath the surface? Like a tiger he would shield his claws until my guard was down. . . .
In his fifties, he was still handsome. His hazel eyes would shift nervously, never looking directly into mine. . . As an artist he possessed integrity. He would work as if in a trance, craving the perfect form of a metallic object in space, the perfect shape of a woman's haunch, adherence to an inner vision. It was this core, struggling for expression in a world he perceived as hostile, that aroused my sympathy.
María Espinosa presents the themes of alienation and incompleteness in alternating sequences between Eleanor, an artistic-minded, assimilated Jew from a wealthy but politically progressive family and her equally artistic daughter, Rosa. Eleanor is constantly torn between her desire for her dream of freedom and the structures that confine and define her to the world. . . As with the unnamed hustler in John Rechy's City of Night, Eleanor seeks her essence in a series of anonymous sexual encounters. Sex, the most primal currency of communication, becomes her nexus to the natural world of desire, dreams, and identity. . . Dying Unfinished is more than a fascinating portrait of creative souls alienated in a materialistic world; it is a brilliant discourse in the search for the language of silence and otherness with the human soul.
— Rosa Martha Villarreal, author of The Stillness of Love and Exile, Chronicles of Air and Dreams, and Doctor Magdalena
Some years ago when María Espinosa was still my student, she presented me with a novel, entitled Longing, she had written about her eccentric husband from Chile, Antonio, in the book. The narrative was so alive and convincing, it sounded more like a slice of life, a document. A number of other novels followed, until the present one, Dying Unfinished, which takes up the main characters of Longing, who are now seen from a distance of many years. The first novel was a brave act of defiance because it involved her family. Now most have disappeared, and the present novel is a memorial, a work of devotion towards mother, father, husband, daughter, brothers, and related lovers and friends. It is a tableau of complicated relations in which the mother is the central figure, and Rosa the daughter, still plays the role of observer, narrator, and actor in the story. Once more Espinosa shows her skill in bringing to life and literature her story, in a very unusual family novel. This time it's not scandal, but the dual points of view of mother and daughter that make it live. My advice to readers is to read them both, to complete this dual tableau which makes fascinating open-ended reading.
— Nanos Valaoritis, author of Pan Daimonium, My Afterlife Guaranteed; editor of An Anthology of Modern Greek Poetry
Maria Espinosa's daughter and mother yearn for contact — who among us does not! — and the sensation of being consumed is overwhelming. This novel takes the reader into eerie alleys of the heart with language as beautiful as the gardenia, sometimes delicate, sometimes full-bown, always pervasive and alluring.
— Clive Matson, author of Chalcedony's First Ten Songs and Let the Crazy Child Write
María Espinosa's Dying Unfinished is not a novel. It is a long poem of great lyrical beauty, a deftly-written tribute to the resilience of the human spirit, told in the intimate voices of Eleanor and Rosa, a mother once a daughter and a daughter now also a mother. Their stories resonate in the heart of every daughter who seeks her self-realization as an entity separate from her mother, and of every mother who fiercely protects her autonomy from family demands. Carving an identity from damaged tissue, from scars and wounds left us by the most significant and complex relationship in our lives requires analytical and surgical precision but also compassion and the strength of convictions. To confront memory, that merciless, relentless accountant, who always arrives with the books of rancor, regret and sorrow neatly tucked under her arms, demands an enormous amount of courage. Elusive for Eleanor till the end of her days, these are the lessons of the heart Rosa learns, for it isn't until the fluid connectedness of mind and spirit is restored and the essence of dreams recovered that forgiveness of self and others is possible. Bravo! Gracias, María.
— Lucha Corpi, author of Eulogy for a Brown Angel and Palabras de Mediadía / Noon Words
Motherhood and ArtGently Read Literature -- www.gentlyread.wordpressMay 1, 2009
"We spend so much energy hiding from the truth," Maria Espinosa writes in this splendid new novel, Dying Unfinished. Espinosa, whose previous novels include Longing, Dark Plums, and Incognito: The Journey of a Secret Jew, refuses to allow herself, her readers, or any of the characters in this tangled and absorbing story to hide. From the first page to the last, she uncovers the hidden motives, unspoken passions, and many disappointments that too often bruise people who have been together for a long time.
The narrative is delivered by a variety of voices framed by different combinations of characters during different periods of their lives and even on different continents. The novel opens with Eleanor, a mother and daughter as well as a mistress and wife, traveling on a commuter train from suburban Long Island to meet her lover in a New York City bar. We glimpse Eleanor as a beautiful young woman as the story unfolds, being courted by Aaron, the man who becomes her lifelong husband as he attains prestige in the difficult world of modern art. Theirs is far from a simple story of adultery and retribution; Aaron is chronically adulterous and the relationship between them, while not quite "open," seems not only to continue but to thrive in the warmth shed by their mutual deceptions.
When children come into this marriage (Jesse, Howard, and Rosa), they respond differently to their parents' world of shadowy truths and half-told lies. Howard becomes practical and hard-working leaving the more artistic and volatile Jesse to encounter problems. Jesse falls ill with polio in one of the many epidemics of the 1950s; he also rebels against his family's web of deceptions by making his own choices and being true to his own desires. But most volatile and most important to the story, is the daughter, Rosa, several years older than her brothers and too gifted and spirited to be contained within any conventional restraints, even those of literary description.
The story of these lives and the art created by them might seem overly complex were it not for the clarity with which the narrative is told. Espinosa takes the reader directly behind the eyes of her characters; she leads us into difficult relationships (Eleanor's with her lovers, Rosa's with a variety of men to whom she turns for solace as she grows into a troubled womanhood). But each episode is concisely contained and crystal clear in its telling as when Rosa finds herself in a whirlpool of self-destruction leading to her becoming a desolate ward of a mental institution; these scenes are gripping, vividly depicted, but never overdone.
By the time the book comes to its conclusion, the reader knows that somehow mother and daughter have achieved the reconciliation they have always sought achieving it through motherhood and art as has Espinosa becoming the first publisher of her own mother's poetry, which heads many of the chapters of Dying Unfinished. It is a fitting homage to the struggles of these two women and a fitting ending to a difficult yet creative journey.
Reviewed by Mimi Albert
SoMa Literary Review --www.somalit.comSpring 2009
Maria Espinosa arrived in San Francisco in 1964, thinking to stay only a few months. Forty years later, she was living on Capp Street and teaching ESL at City College's Mission Campus, her favorite hangout a nearby Cuban restaurant where she and fellow teachers would go for beers after class. Although she now lives in Lafayette, Espinosa, who has published four novels and two books of poetry, still likes to BART into The City to wander the streets "absorbing the life."
"Beneath your icy surface lies such strong love . . . a dark glowing current . . . glowing waters of your love," Espinosa writes. What distinguishes her semi-autobiographical novel Dying Unfinished from other accounts of troubled mother-daughter relationships is the astonishing degree of empathy she shows for both sides. Eleanor Bernstein yearns to feel completed. Rosa struggles to forgive her mother and find herself. Their lives reflect the changing conditions for women in an America lurching through the repressive fifties to seventies-era liberation. While Eleanor stays in New York, Rosa comes to the Bay Area, where she works as a topless dancer in a North Beach club, struggles with an abusive husband, finds her calling as a writer, and raises her own daughter.
Eleanor and Rosa emerge from the current of Espinosa's prose like mysterious fish. Poetic force rather than narrative tension sustains the reader. In an afterward, Espinosa invites us to think of her book as a kaddish or lament, and the first-person "Rosa" sections read like anguished epistles to a mother long dead. Working not only from memory but from poems and story fragments her real-life mother left behind, Espinosa portrays Eleanor as both the perpetrator and victim of suffering on a mythic scale.
In 1940s New York, Eleanor and her sculptor husband, Aaron, live a bohemian life of wild parties and innumerable extra-marital affairs; yet Eleanor, at home during the day with young children, is bored and unhappy. She feels she has lost her inmost self. She hears voices and contemplates letting "the voices grow louder and assume physical shapes, leaving this painful world of household tasks and children behind her." Meanwhile, her eldest child, Rosa, sits on her lap and tries to push the corners of Mommy's mouth up into a smile. Years later, Rosa recalls her mother's beauty, elegance, and "cold forbearance."
"Jewish only by origin," Eleanor can't relate to her children's attempts to identify as Jews. When Rosa's brother wants to accept an invitation to a Seder, Eleanor protests, saying, "You've been raised as an American." Readers will hear in this exchange from 1958 a ring of truth that continues to echo, however faintly, today. Scrupulously avoiding anachronism, always favoring poetry over jargon, Espinosa explores the ways people negotiate and define their differences, whether by choosing not to "assimilate," questioning the balance of power between men and women, or staking out their own distinctive artistic territory.
Reaching adulthood in mid-century Manhattan, Rosa is at the peak of her beauty and power at age eighteen. "Yet I squandered these riches," she says, describing her anonymous sexual encounters in hotel rooms and in subway tunnels. When, like her mother, she starts hearing voices, Rosa is diagnosed as a schizophrenic. She accepts her parents' decision to incarcerate her in a mental hospital, where women with such psychological "disturbances" as an inclination to love other women are drugged with Thorazine and given shock treatments. Luckily, Rosa is released when the doctors discover that she reads voraciously and writes poetry. She graduates from college and travels to Paris, where she meets Antonio, a Chilean writer, gets married, and has a baby in short order.
Meanwhile, the Bernsteins' emotional bond holds fast. Even Eleanor's decades-long affair with one of Aaron's closest friends can't destroy this marriage. Using precise, emotionally restrained language, Espinosa imagines the beginning of the affair. At a party, Eleanor feels "magnetically attached" to her husband's friend and pulls him into an empty room. Soon she is crying into his lapels, confessing her loneliness. "Then his tongue, thick and salty, wove into her mouth." This compelling scene reveals Eleanor's strengths and weaknesses, while shedding light on a time when female sexuality was seen as shameful, to be covered up and denied.
Much of the drama in Dying Unfinished stems from the love triangle that develops between Rosa, her husband, and her mother. Like a figure out of Greek tragedy, Eleanor feels trapped by fate. Her actions are "pre-ordained." Antonio proves capable of telling his wife's mother, "I perceived that for you the way to communicate is through sex." Rosa alternates between feelings of jealousy and hope that Antonio could heal Eleanor's "sadness and hunger." A strange ménage, indeed.
As an elderly woman dying of cancer, Eleanor mournfully concludes that she and Aaron made a pact against Rosa at birth, allying themselves against "this intruder, with her infant cries and constant need for attention." The immediacy of Eleanor's recollection is characteristic of the way Espinosa telescopes years of life into searing moments that repeatedly surface in memory, so that yesterday and today merge together in an intensely felt present-time.
Rosa's empathy for her mother occasionally shades into petty ambivalence, as when she waffles between outrage over her parents' choosing to stay at the expensive Claremont Hotel (she and daughter Isabel live in the Berkeley flats, surviving on food stamps) and gratitude that they pay for Isabel's orthodontist. But if Rosa sometimes comes across as a pale imitation of her mother, she nonetheless remains intriguing to readers. After all, she's clearly based on the writer of this remarkable book.
Reviewed by Caren Laws
In Maria Espinosa's latest novel, Dying Unfinished, we follow the lives of Eleanor and her daughter Rosa, a character first gleaned in Espinosa's American Book Award winner, Longing. We are exposed early on to the tethered ends of the Bernstein family, as terms such as "love" and "fidelity" are held as loosely as the marriage between Aaron and Eleanor. "'Where is she?' Aaron would ask when he came home. 'Where is she?' The children would ask. They were birds with hungry beaks who pecked away at her soul and body."
In a variety of voices — primarily Eleanor and her passionate yet estranged daughter Rosa — Espinosa spins a tale of passion and profound apathy. Eleanor, who buried her poetic dreams to marry Aaron for his artistic fervor, grows tired of a gradually cooling marriage and so chooses a clandestine sexual life of her own. In turn, Aaron had married Eleanor for her grounded, pragmatic personality, but soon becomes bored as his sexual appetite slowly drifts toward his younger art students. Despite these trespasses, an unspoken acceptance settles on their lives as each retains what attracted them most to one another.
As they left, the two men were deep in conversation. Aaron had picked up his blow torch and was explaining how he would weld a leg onto the upper half of a copper female body. "She has no feet," said Heinrich. "Her feet will be part of the earth," said Aaron.
Their cold indifference, however, affects the oldest of the three Bernstein children, Rosa, the most. Born with Aaron's brilliance and Eleanor's desperate promiscuity, Rosa is unable to express herself to a mother preoccupied with her own sorrow and a father who sees her as merely one of his many sculptures. Starved for attention and an outlet for her preternatural talents, she soon finds solace, like her mother, with others: "By fucking men, I [Rosa] believed that I was getting to know something essential about human nature. 'If the fool persists in her folly she will become wise.' That is, if she survives."
Rosa, despite emotional anguish and even a stint within a mental institution, indeed survives. Despite a failed marriage of her own, Rosa turns darkness into light with the birth of her own daughter, Isabel, and is given the chance to become the woman Eleanor was too afraid to be.
Dying Unfinished, in lavish, invigorating prose, is Maria Espinosa's insight into the darkest shadows of family life. Though multiple viewpoints may initially stun the reader, one is quickly rewarded with a resolution that displays how the sins of parents can be overcome by the resolve of a daughter.
Mr. Bowen currently resides in eastern North Carolina. He occupies his time writing both novel-length and short fiction concerning a prophet of his own design, playing house husband, and taking a stab at Native American crafts. He is currently working on his B.A. degree in English at East Carolina University.
Library JournalDecember 2008
Espinosa's new novel portrays Jewish American mother and daughter Eleanor and Rosa over several decades, from the 1940s to the 1980s. As a mother, Eleanor is both fiercely protective and remote. As a daughter, Rosa distances herself from her family as much as possible, first in struggling with mental illness and then with a disastrous marriage to a Chilean writer in Paris. But there is more to each woman than family relationships. Eleanor yearns to be an artist but ends up a frustrated housewife who seeks almost constant sexual gratification; her sexual encounters veer from anonymous lovers to long-term affairs. Rosa, in spite of her early life, is the more rooted; she finds creativity and stability in her writing and, eventually, in her own daughter. Like her character Rosa, Espinosa was born Jewish American and has written on both Jewish and Latina themes. Her other novels include Dark Plums, American Book Award winner Longing (in which Espinosa introduced Rosa), and Incognito: Journey of a Secret Jew. Recommended for larger public libraries.Reviewed by Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield College Library, McMinnville, OR
"A fierce novel that explores the topography of paKIRKUS ReviewsDecember 15, 2008
A lyrical novel that takes place over three generations and that reminds us of the arduousness, and even desolation, of love relationships-between husband and wife, spouse and lover, mother and daughter. The fury at the center of the narrative is embodied in Eleanor Bernstein, whose relationships with her husband Aaron, her daughter Rosa and her countless lovers-both friends and strangers-are equal sources of elation and agony. Espinosa (Incognito: Journey of a Secret Jew, 2002, etc.) knows how to chronicle amatory ambivalence. Eleanor's relationship to Aaron, a sculptor with an artistic temperament and numerous casual lovers, is emotionally tempestuous though sexually unexciting. Because Eleanor had grown up an imaginative child in a world of privilege, she doesn't accommodate herself easily to the demands of adulthood and motherhood. For a while, the primary relationship in Eleanor's life is with Heinrich, a family friend who devolves into a lover. Aaron and Eleanor raise Rosa in a hothouse of pretense and intensity, so much so that Rosa has a breakdown in early adulthood and is diagnosed as schizophrenic. After a tenuous recovery, and against the wishes of both her mother and her psychiatrist, Rosa moves to Paris and takes up with the flamboyant and charismatic Antonio. They get married two weeks before the birth of their daughter, and Eleanor voyages to Paris to witness the birth of her grandchild. But when Rosa is in the hospital awaiting delivery, Antonio first rapes his mother-in-law and then begins an affair with her. Antonio expresses his insight into Eleanor's character by stating the obvious: that her primary mode of communication is through sex. After the turbulence and frenzy of her many sexual encounters, Eleanor ages, her body succumbing to arthritis and eventually cancer. During this time she grows more reflective and is able to reconcile some of the demands of her body with the realities of physical deterioration. A fierce novel that explores the topography of passion and grace.
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