San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Book Review: Girl with the Crooked Smile

When it rains, it pours: First Darah Zeledón feels dizzy, and then she’s diagnosed with a brain tumor “the size of a tennis ball.” To remove it, she must leave her expatriate home in Panama, entrust her three children with others, spend expensive days in New York City, and endure a harrowing surgery. The operation paralyzes part of Zeledón’s face, and she can barely breathe or drink fluid.

Shortly after her return to Panama, she gets a phone call: Her brother has shot himself.

Zeledón’s book, “Girl with a Crooked Smile: Stuck in a Moment,” is her firsthand account of tragedy and more tragedy, and given its devout Jewish backdrop, one can’t help but compare her misfortunes to Job’s. Under ordinary circumstances, U.S.-born Zeledón is a devoted mother and wife; she’s crazy about her husband, Joaquín, and if she can just survive her fourth pregnancy, everything will be peachy. Their upper class Panamanian lifestyle overflows with friends and goodwill. Zeledón is adventurous and self-confident, the portrait of a cool mom. No one deserves a malignant tumor, but Zeledón seems particularly unworthy.

Deep inside its tangled prose, “Girl with a Crooked Smile” is a moving memoir of courage and survival in the face of nightmarish events. Like a lot of confessional literature, the story has its artful images, like the backyard pool that’s never quite right. Akin to Joan Didion’s latest books, “Crooked Smile” attempts to articulate unspeakable angst. Even Zeledón’s reluctant return to the U.S. is fraught with pain and confusion. If you dig deep, the book is worth a gander.

The problem is Zeledón’s writing – wordy, wending and wasteful sentences that mock the reader’s patience. From its cumbersome title to its overwrought finale, “Crooked Smile” is suffocated with mixed metaphors: “Joaquín drops the bomb that fateful evening and I board the train of emotions just before turning into a zombie.” So begins Chapter 4, and the clichéd similes only get wilder from there. Random pop culture references float through the narrative (“Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” is one surprising example), and even the dialogue sounds forced (“Mommy, how come your mouth, nose and eye are all broken and crooked if the boo-boo was only on your head?” ask her children).

We might look past her writing craft – it’s a first book, after all, published through Sterling Publishing Group, a vanity publisher based in Florida, and at least Zeledón’s excessive verbiage is spelled correctly. A simple memoir of her travails might win us over, for Zeledón’s triumphs are certainly hard-won. Yet “Crooked Smile” also behaves like a self-help manual, and each chapter ends with “pearls of wisdom.” Readers are not meant to infer this wisdom from the book’s subtext, but to memorize bulleted lists that summarize each chapter: “Be careful what you wish for,” and “Venture outside your ‘comfort zone.’”

In short, Zeledón has branded her calamities, and in the most didactic way possible. According to her press material, Zeledón is a “self-described dynamo” and so-called “Warrior Mom.” At the moment, the author is doing the lecture circuit in Costa Rica, and she is yet another figurehead in the self-actualization movement. As Zeledón might phrase it, she has turned lemons into a diamond in the rough. Good for her, but it seems additionally tragic: She survived, only to market her survival. Expressing her extraordinary arc is not enough; it must come with a trademark.

That is the way of publishing these days: Authors can’t just be authors, but aggressive entrepreneurs, and Zeledón has embraced this fact. The “life-coach” genre speaks to legions, even in a country as famously content as Costa Rica, and Zeledón will find an audience eager for PowerPoint inspiration. After so much heartache, perhaps Zeledón deserves a warm reception, plus – why not? – fame and lecture fees. Maybe she’ll afford a better editor.

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