Review: 'Night of the Radishes' a homegrown yarn

  • Updated: January 3, 2004 - 10:00 PM

FICTION

Night of the Radishes

By: Sandra Benitez. Publisher: Theia/Hyperion, 288 pages, $23.95. Review: The pleasant but not particularly profound story of a Minnesota woman who tames the demons of her childhood during a journey to Mexico find her long-missing brother.

Events: 7:30 p.m. Wed., Ruminator Books, 1648 Grand Av.; 7:30 p.m. Jan. 13, Barnes & Noble, Galleria, 3225 W. 69th St., Edina; 7 p.m. Feb. 3, the Bookcase, 607 E. Lake St., Wayzata.


Reviewed by Pamela Miller

Star Tribune Staff Writer

Annie Rush, the main character in Sandra Benitez's new novel, "Night of the Radishes," is morbidly depressed. Thirtysomething Annie has a loving, handsome husband, two sweet sons, a cool house in Hopkins, kind neighbors and a rewarding job as a corporate trainer. So what's the problem?

Annie has become increasingly haunted by the ghosts of childhood past. Her identical twin was killed at age 9 in a farm accident. Her father committed suicide. Her beloved brother, Hub, disappeared at 17. After all that, her morose mother smoked herself to death.

As the story opens, Annie's dying mother pleads for her to find Hub, who now and then sends cryptic postcards from parts various. Annie decides to honor the request, especially after learning that her mother has left her home in Minneapolis' Uptown neighborhood to Hub, and almost $1 million that no one knew she had to her. Now she has the freedom and money to travel in search of Hub.

Annie is also driven by guilt that she helped bring about her sister's and father's deaths and her brother's disappearance.

She sets off for Oaxaca, Mexico, the postmark on Hub's latest postcard. There she settles into a charming roominghouse and meets an attractive, attentive California professor who is wrestling with his own private sorrow.

Will Annie have an affair with this sweet, sexy man? Will she find Hub? Will she stop blaming herself for her sister's death in the tractor's harrows, for her father putting a rifle into his mouth? Will she forgive her mother (and herself) for surviving? Will guilt, grief and anger do her in? Will Mexico's magic and mystery (the title refers to a radish-carving festival that takes place around Christmas) help her heal?

Such suspense makes "Night of the Radishes" a good yarn. It's extra fun for Minnesotans, who will find lots of familiar references -- Hopkins, Uptown, Robert Bly, Byerly's and Target among them. And for those who know a little about Latina-American writer Benitez, who lives in Edina, the story is poignant; she, too, had a twin who died.

But this story, while earnest and ultimately buoying, is not particularly profound. Its presentation of basic psychology is heavyhanded and simplistic. We are oft-subjected to statements such as, "The shade drops further down on the windowpane of my mood"; "I'm finally surrendering to . . . the cosmic will of life itself" and "My head pulls me in one direction, my body in another."

Some of the characters, most notably Annie's two men, and sometimes the pained, privileged protagonist herself, are one-dimensional. And the use of present tense gives the story a rushed, careless feel, as if it were its own rough draft.

However, the novel gets a powerful boost from two characters who lend welcome complexity. One is dead: Annie's mother brings the flashbacks to life, and her rough, almost illiterate diary entries contain some of the book's best writing. Hub, the prodigal brother, is also a layered character.

The book's easy familiarity with two cultures and its focus on spiritual growth through the course of a journey are much to its credit. Although there's nothing groundbreaking about "Radishes," it's a sweet, thoughtful story. Let us hope it was as healing for Benitez to write as it is fun for us to read.

Pamela Miller is at pmiller@startribune.com.

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