Synopses & Reviews
Don Victor Sobrevilla, a lovable, eccentric engineer, always dreamed of founding a paper factory in the heart of the Peruvian rain forest, and at the opening of this miraculous novel his dream has come true until he discovers the recipe for cellophane. In a life already filled with signs and portents, the family dog suddenly begins to cough strangely. A wild little boy turns azurite blue. All at once Don Victor is overwhelmed by memories of his erotic past; his prim wife, Doña Mariana, reveals the shocking truth about her origins; the three Sobrevilla children turn their love lives upside down; the family priest blurts out a long-held secret...
A hilarious plague of truth has descended on the once well-behaved Sobrevillas, only the beginning of this brilliantly realized, generous-hearted novel. Marie Arana's style, originality, and trenchant wit will establish her as one of the most audacious talents in fiction today and Cellophane as one of the most evocative and spirited novels of the year.
"Arana, author of American Chica and editor of Washington Post Book World, revisits her native Peru with a tale as bawdy, raucous and dense as the jungle whose presence encroaches on every page. Arana's first novel depicts a family and a country on the fulcrum between the old ways and the new, between feudalism and revolution. At the height of the Great Depression, paper engineer Don Victor Sobrevilla pitches his small empire where the trees are in the heart of the rain forest constructing a highly successful paper factory and a vast hacienda, Floralinda, far from the political centers of Trujillo and Lima, linked only to the outside world by the dangerous and unpredictable Amazon. When, in 1952, Don Victor discovers the formula for cellophane, his household is afflicted with a 'plague of truth,' a compulsion to confess their most shameful histories and most hidden yearnings, to make their stories as transparent as the paper itself. When desires are laid bare, so are the conflicts that the family has kept hidden for so long, resulting in interlocking quests for power. The novel's broadly comic first half makes the story's violent culmination even more harrowing. (June 27)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Memorable fiction....Arana brings a freshness to the style that is all her own, elegant and lyrical but at the same time sparse, and no doubt enriched by a vocabulary infused with the rhythms of her two languages." The Miami Herald
"Arana's writing is both lush and funny...This is a great book." People
"Exuberant and virtuosic....Conflict takes on a teeming array of forms in Cellophane: whites versus natives, religion versus magic, feudalism versus revolution. It's a vision of the rain forest as a place where every strain of human drama grows as tangled as the encroaching vines and in depicting this, Arana has wound her themes together with an energetic, subtly controlled wildness."San Francisco Chronicle Books
"Rich in themes, symbolism, conflict and character....It's also, for those who just want a good tale, a brilliant piece of storytelling that combines magical realism in the tradition of writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez with comedic looks at human foibles and misunderstandings a la Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream." The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
"Marie Arana's sumptuous, often erotic and wholly enchanting novel, Cellophane....owes a debt to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende....A superb example of the magic that a gifted storyteller can work with ink and paper."Los Angeles Times Book Review
"An absolutely spellbinding tale....Arana's prose is captivating, and she provides some incredibly beguiling moments." Philadelphia City Paper
From noted writer and National Book Award finalist Arana comes a debut novel with all the power and grace of her acclaimed memoir, American Chica.
About the Author
Marie Arana is the editor of the Washington Post Book World. Born in Peru of a Peruvian father and an American mother, she is the author of American Chica, a finalist for the PEN-Memoir Award and the National Book Award, and a collection of columns, The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work. Marie Arana lives in Washington, D.C., and Lima, Peru.
Reading Group Guide
When her memoir, American Chica
, was released, Marie Arana garnered rave reviews that compared her to literary giants ranging from Isabel Allende to John Cheever to Joseph Conrad; the book also became a National Book Award finalist. Cellophane
marks Arana's fiction debut, and the result is no less spectacular. Both a sizzling family saga and the riotously entertaining story of a commercial obsession gone awry, Cellophane
transports you to a world where nothing is what it seems, and the ordinary always succumbs to the extraordinary.
At the heart of Cellophane is patriarch Don Victor Sobrevilla Paniagua, a lovable, eccentric engineer who always dreamed of founding a paper factory in the most improbable of locales–an uncharted pocket of the Peruvian rain forest. Yet his dream is fulfilled, and over the years he builds a comfortable life for himself and his quirky family, always mindful of ominous predictions he received as a boy. When he discovers the formula for cellophane, this diaphanous product ushers in a new era of plagues for Don Victor: a hilarious plague of truth, an erotically charged plague of desire, and a sinister plague of revolution. Love lives are toppled, new romances are ignited, and Don Victor is finally forced to weigh the price of pursuing a dream to its final conclusion.
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Marie Arana's Cellophane. We hope they will enrich your experience of this stunning, vibrant novel.
1. Cellophane opens with images of Don Victor's boyhood, including his fascination with Swedish ball bearings and Señor Urrutia's perpetual-motion machine. What were your first impressions of Don Victor? What was the significance of his early fascinations?
2. When Don Victor travels to the interior in his early twenties, he has his first experience with the small-statured Serrano Indians. What is his attitude toward South America's indigenous populations? Whom does he trust more: his curandero or his priest?
3. What was the effect of knowing the details about Doña Mariana's experiences in labor? Do her three children have many traits in common?
4. Don Victor uses equipment made available after the suicide of William Randolph Meiggs to establish his paper factory downriver in Floralinda. How do Don Victor and the other Peruvians in the novel seem to feel about American investors?
5. What is supernatural about Basadre's cough? What predictions did you derive from the encounter between Miguelito and the terrier? Were the ingenious tin-cup braces a success?
6. Pedro's migrant tribe avoids him, considering him to be tainted by the "termites." Do many of the novel's characters gain acceptance in more than one culture, or is segregation required? In terms of class, who are the novel's true power brokers?
7. Near the end of Chapter Four, the initial, passionate months of Belén and Ignacio’s marriage are described. Marie Arana tells us that, reading Zola's pro-labor novel Germinal, Belén would "thank God that her legs were wrapped around a factory worker." What other literary references enhance the storytelling in Cellophane? What does Belén's taste in literature indicate about her personality?
8. Discuss the remarkable features of Tía Esther's affair with Lars, revealed in Chapter Five. What common threads run through the tales of lovers in Cellophane?
9. How would you have reacted to Padre Bernardo's revelation? If you were to engage in the litany of truth telling performed by Jaime in chapter six, what sorts of realities might be revealed?
10. Louis Miller wonders why Floralinda isn't on any map. Locate a detailed map of Peru and explore the remote region corresponding to Floralinda, noting its distance from Trujillo and Lima. What does a map exercise reveal about Don Victor in his quest? In what ways does landscape almost become a character itself in the novel?
11. How does Don Victor cope with the losses in his life, particularly the death of Chína, and the death of his mother at the hands of the military? Is there any similarity between the way he interacts with his brother (Don Alejandro, who still lives in the ancestral home and ships away his castoffs) and the way his children interact with one another?
12. In Chapter Nine, as Don Victor concludes his conversation with Padre Bernardo, he says, "I wouldn’t have known how to tell Yorumbo what sin means in the context of his culture. Simple, ordinary sin." Is sin universal, or is it defined by culture?
13. What accounts for Don Victor's love affair with paper? What attributes of cellophane–transparent, shimmering, fragile, protective–make it an excellent metaphor for his life? In what subtle ways was he indeed a shape changer?
14. Chapter Ten marks the arrival of General Lopez from President Odria's army. Odria's rise to power through a military coup is based on fact. What other historical parallels exist between Peru's political state and the novel? What elements of surrealism and reality form the underpinnings of this novel?
15. What is Marcela's ultimate predicament? In what ways does she bring comic relief to the novel? Is she typical of most of the women in Don Victor's life?
16. Discuss the clever communication and translation jokes raised in the novel, and the way they shape the plot.
17. In Chapter Eleven, Tía Esther tells the story of her parents, Homero Paniagua and Catalina Wong. What transforming powers does this story have? How would you characterize the power and significance of storytelling in general throughout Cellophane?
18. Is there a Tía Esther in your family, an unlikely heroine who repeatedly saves the day?
19. What do you predict for Don Victor's descendants, Graciela, Belén, and Jaime? Will Elsa and the General have a satisfying relationship?
20. Reread Victor's fortune, which forms the novel's closing image and whose full text appears in Chapter One. Did it capture the truth, or did his misplaced belief in the fortune lead to his downfall? How would its predictions have applied to your life?