My latest acquisition from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Lucia Orth's first novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop (2008). I wasn't sure I'd like this, firstly because the cover is really dumb, and secondly because the other book I'd gotten from this publisher wasn't one of my favorites. And yet, like so many other times before, I was happily surprised.
Baby Jesus Pawn Shop is the story of Doming Aquinaldo, a man who flees his home in Mindanao for the big-city anonymity of Manila after his step-father is murdered (and Doming is targeted) by local officials for organizing the sugar cane workers. He gets a job as a driver for Trace Caldwell, an American intelligence officer, and his wife, Rue, who eschews the social engagements with diplomat's wives and does agricultural research at the Rice Institute. Rue and Trace are drifting further and further apart as he becomes enmeshed in the compromises, injustices, and betrayals necessary to keep Ferdinand Marcos in power, the communists under control, and the US military bases unchallenged. Rue wants to leave their loveless marriage, but has fallen in love with the country and can't bear to leave it. What surprises her is that she also falls in love with Doming, and he falls in love with her as well.
The love story is generally given a pretty light touch, and is enveloped by a detailed and moving portrait of the Philippines towards the end of the Marcos' twenty-three years of power. Poverty, torture and injustice are all mixed up with humor, beauty, and love. Nothing is too florid or heavy-handed (except some of the dialogue between the lovers, which gets a little goofy at times), and I felt like I learned a lot about the country and its history, without sacrificing depth of character or narrative.
Absolutely worth a second look.