The nine stories comprising The Crystal Frontier, a brilliant work of fiction from Carlos Fuentes, all concern people who in one way or another have had something to do with, or still are part of, the family of one Leonardo Barroso, a powerful oligarch of northern Mexico with manifold connections to the United States.
Though subtitled "a novel in nine stories," the nine pieces that make up Fuentes's latest are a bit too fragmented to warrant that description. True, their protagonists all share some connection to Leonardo Barroso, a powerful, somewhat shady Mexican businessman, but the real common thread--a thin one--is Fuentes's interest in intersections and miscommunications between the U.S. and Mexico. The book opens strongly enough, with "A Capital Girl," a tale of a young woman who falls in love with Barroso but marries his troubled son instead. Yet the second story--about a young Mexican man who discovers his homosexuality while studying medicine at Cornell at Barroso's expense--rings false in its depiction of American collegiate life. Indeed, for a book that seeks to depict the ways in which Americans misunderstand Mexicans and Mexico, there are a surprising number of stereotypes and cliches of life in the States. The most prominent offender is "Girlfriends," the heavy-handed story of a racist rich old Angla and her long-suffering Mexican servant. While the best entries here--the moving "Malintzin Las Maquilas," about the difficult friendship among three exploited female factory workers, and the title story, an offbeat tale of a Mexican window washer's encounter with an American executive--display Fuentes's rich imagination and subtle touch, too many of the characters and situations take a back seat to what are clearly didactic intentions.