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Realism in family epic bad and good

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CARAMELO, by Sandra Cisneros, Knopf, 444 pages, $24.

A multigenerational Mexican epic based on Sandra Cisneros' own family, "Caramelo" (derived from the Spanish word for the most beautiful shawl — rebozo — suggesting that traditions are passed down in families) is a gigantic story containing the range of human emotions expressed mostly in car trips between Chicago, San Antonio and Mexico City. Cisneros is one of seven children of a Mexican father and Mexican-American mother who raised their family in Chicago but traveled often to Mexico City to visit her father's mother.

Every family who has taken car trips together can imagine the unpleasantness, the quarrels and the laughter of a family vacation. What sweaty rides those were without air conditioning. In spite of the ethnic orientation of this family, virtually anyone can see his or her own experiences in these pages. Because Cisneros does not remember everything that happened in her own family or everything that was said, she relies on her imagination to create characters, relationships and situations that literally jump off the page.

That is because Cisneros' ear for expression in either English or Spanish is near perfect.

The "little grandfather" and the "awful grandmother" stand out as characters to remember, but the father and mother are portrayed with the insight only a daughter could convey. Lala Reyes, the daughter, is the narrator. She vividly remembers events and conversations and re-tells them with the passion for which Cisneros is famous.

Nicknames abound — Aunty Light-Skin, Uncle Fat-Face, Uncle Baby — and the little kids, Lolo and Memo; the big kids, Toto, Rafa, Ito, Tikis and Antonieta Araceli. Uncle Fat-Face drives a used white Cadillac, Uncle Baby drives a green

Impala and Lala's dad drives a red Chevrolet station wagon — all traveling on Route 66. They take turns passing each other and honking.

At one point when they stop, Lala's father checks the tires while talking to three barefoot kids among the cacti, mesquite and sage. Soon he reaches into the car and grabs her Bobby doll and Lolo's and Memo's Christmas Tonka trucks. Then he gives them to the poor, dusty kids. His children are distressed. Lala says, "Over the shoulder of the running girl do I imagine or do I really see the rubber arm of my Bobby doll, the one with three fingers, raised in the air waving goodbye?"

Cisneros' descriptions are so effective that it seems sometimes as if it is happening right now. This is both good and bad. The realism is impressive, but one's own memories of car trips and just the long process of growing up in an idiosyncratic family sometimes makes the novel hard to bear. The quarrels seem as real as the tender moments. Some of the hurts may never be healed. As a result, the book seems as long as it is. Sometimes you feel you are wading through muck, while other times you feel lucky to have discovered gems from a gifted writer.

This unique book, which just may become a classic, is more easily appreciated in short spurts. Better not to read it through in two or three sittings or you will get depressed and start seeing your own life in it. The ideal would be to attend a reading in which Cisneros herself could select salient passages to read and talk about. Let the artist discuss her art.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com