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Celebrating Small Towns

Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl are great partners, but they could use an outside editor

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Esperanza women raise goats for goat cheese, beets for borscht, chickens for green eggs, and red and green chiles for enchiladas and burritos. They ride horses and are supported by fields of chiles and alfalfa. They throw regular craft parties where they and their girlfriends quilt, crochet and knit things to raise funds for a nuns' charity. They're 21st-century women keeping traditional practices alive in New Mexico.

Much as their characters do, New Mexicans Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl get together and craft literary things. They do appealing work, but not without dropping a few too many stitches.

A Growing Season is not Boggio and Pearl's first collaboration. They've been writing buddies since they were 10-year-old schoolgirls in West Des Moines, Iowa. Now, both living in the Albuquerque area, they have revisited the setting—fictional Esperanza—and the characters of their first novel, Sunlight and Shadow.

Their new novel, which takes place seven years after Sunlight and Shadow, tells two parallel family narratives, anchored by good friends Abby Silva and CeCe Vigil. Abby, now 37 and widowed for seven years, is beginning to anticipate a partially empty nest as her adopted son Santiago prepares to go off to college. She's also ready for adult companionship. Sixty-year-old CeCe, on the other hand, is suddenly faced with more adult companionship than she'd choose at her stage in life: Her octogenarian parents—vociferously opposed to her marriage to Mexican-American Miguel—find themselves broke and in need of a place to live, and they land on her and Miguel.

Complications arise in Abby's family as the perfect Santiago, a newspaper editor as well as a student leader, starts to be seen in the company of gangster types that his father hung with in his abbreviated, violent life. Complications arise in CeCe's family when her acid-tongued mother takes on her husband and friends. And her father, once remote and unknowable, now demands her hands-on help as he flashes back to the horrors of his Holocaust past. These issues are played out as Miguel's livelihood as a chile farmer is threatened by drought. Evil developers are buying up farms; and cities, environmentalists and farmers are fighting over the Rio Grande's rapidly shrinking water supply.

Boggio and Pearl address such problems as ethnic prejudice, parent-child relations and the effects of buried secrets. Basically, though, the characters are all just looking for love.

The distinct advantage of working with a partner is that you've got someone else to blame. In publication, however, when grammar glitches appear, they're as much your issue as your partner's. Although they don't present this book as literary fiction, one or the other of these writers (or their copy editor) should still honor a few grammatical and craft conventions:

•Writers need to know the difference between the verbs "lie" and "lay." If they don't, they should probably avoid employing either.

• Ditto for the pronouns "who" and "whom."

• Next, the only prose more cringe-worthy than awkward attempts to depict romantic sex in a family novel is attempts to depict children as endearing by writing them baby-talk dialogue.

• And finally, there are more ways to create characters than to describe their hairstyles and what they choose to wear the day they show up for a scene. In this novel, hair is everywhere; it "dances," it "cascades" and—Lord preserve us—as chest hair, it "curls" around a finger. The reader wants to pull it out in handfuls.

That said, Boggio and Pearl have more to offer than poorly edited, cutesy prose.

This is essentially a woman's book, and scenes in which women interact are warmly drawn. Abby and CeCe's friends are quirky and likable. Santiago is everyone's (including the reader's) favorite kid: handsome, smart and sensitive. But he's also disturbed by an underlying anxiety. The writers clearly care about the region they live in and re-create. One strength of the novel is its affectionate rendering of the central and northern New Mexican landscape and back-to-nature lifestyle. And they clearly love their small-town folks, struggling to live traditional lives in spite of nature's vicissitudes and larger society's pressures.

Despite the stylistic issues, Sue Boggio and Mare Pearl have succeeded in writing a smoothly integrated novel: The voice is unified and the parallel narratives balance each other nicely. Like a pleasing quilt, you don't know where one's stitches end and the other's start. That's promising for continued collaboration. Especially with a copy editor at the party.

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