Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a slow burn novel that takes place in a mansion tinged with supernatural forces where the main character is trying to diagnose her cousin’s mysterious illness and the settings that made her sick.
Noemí Taboada is a wealthy socialite living in 1950s Mexico who wants to pursue a master’s degree in anthropology. Her father, an entrepreneur in the ink industry, promises Noemí he will fund her education if she visits her newlywed cousin Catalina. The destination is High Place, a Gothic mansion high up a mountain in a remote town that belongs to Catalina’s in-laws, the Doyles. When Noemí arrives at the mansion, she finds Catalina is ill.
A disturbing letter from Catalina claiming she is being poisoned by the Doyles forces Noemí to make the long-term visit to check in on her cousin, who lost her parents at a young age. So Noemí enters the High Place believing her cousin is putting on the theatrics for attention. Then, Noemí meets the Doyles. There is Catalina’s husband, Virgil, who makes Noemí uncomfortable right off the bat. Florence Doyle, Virgil’s aunt and the drill sergeant of the house, chastises Noemí for questioning the rules like seeing the sickly Catalina at her convenience. Howard Doyle, Virgil’s father, appears at the first dinner and remarks on how Noemí has darker skin and hair color than Catalina. After making a mental Post-it note on the microaggression, Noemí answers that her cousin is half-French. This leaves a bad taste in her mouth. The only ally Noemí has is Francis Doyle, Virgil’s younger cousin, who appears gentle enough to get along with.
After having a chance to survey Catalina, Noemí notices the illness has overtaken her cousin with strange symptoms. The doctor working with the Doyles keeps medicating Catalina and assuring Noemí nothing else can be done. Noemí doesn’t buy that. She sneaks out into the town and tries to get a doctor to come to High Place. The one doctor she finds is afraid to get involved with the Doyles’ matters. A medicine woman in town claims to know Catalina and had given her natural remedies before Catalina was confined to High Place. From the townspeople and the Doyle grounds, Noemí discovers that hundreds of miners died during an unexplained epidemic from the family’s silver mining heyday amid the start of the Mexican Revolution.
Piecing together the strangeness of the Doyles and their home, Noemí forges on her quest to save her cousin. Except she is having hallucinogenic visions and doesn’t quite feel like herself. She confides in Francis more and more for help until they figure out the magnitude of the engulfing presence that defines the family and their surroundings.
Not a fan of thrillers, but this historical fiction novel set in Mexico weaves the social sciences and the physical sciences together to create a perfect storm of extreme tension between Noemí and the Doyles sans Francis. Though there is a supernatural element, there is also the lure of how the Doyles live and where they live. Noemí realizes the house would draw a fairy tale-loving Catalina in:
It was the kind of thing she could imagine impressing her cousin: an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel. Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, those were Catalina’s sort of books. Moors and spiderwebs. Castles, too, and wicked stepmothers who force princesses to eat poisoned apples, dark fairies cursing maidens and wizards who turn handsome lords into beasts. Noemí preferred to jump from party to party on a weekend and drive a convertible.
The book is also part romance with Noemí trusting Francis as the days go on as the only person who can help her with Catalina. Even though he’s a Doyle, he takes a liking to Noemí and looks for ways to help as the youngest member of the family who’s grown accustomed to how everything functions and doesn’t know if he wants to poke the bear of what’s lurking around them.
Overall, the suspenseful ending solves the mystery of what’s ailing Catalina, and the reason is complicated like the journey to discovering the secret. Again, the unique setting in place and time elevates the story and the complexity of the characters.