Luis Alberto Urrea”s The House of Broken Angels takes place over two days, during two highly charged family gatherings; the first is a funeral, and the second is a last-blast birthday.
The Broken Angels of the title are Big Angel and Little Angel, half brothers sharing a father. Big Angel’s mother, the matriarch of the sprawling Latino family, has died at age 100. Little Angel’s white American mother lived in the shadow of the large Latino family. Big Angel, referred to as the German since he’s never late and meticulously performed his job at Pacific Gas & Electric had a fraught relationship with Little Angel, who is known as “The Assimilator: or “The American” by his half family because he went to Seattle and became a school teacher.
When Big Angel contracts a terminal illness, the family plans a big birthday party. Unexpectedly his mother dies and the funeral is scheduled the day before the party. Over that weekend, secrets are revealed, scores are somewhat settled, and redemption is possible. Each family member is at once bound to the family, but is also either struggling or succeeding to assimilate outside of it.
Urrea aspired to write a novel of a family that looked like his own when his brother died one month after their mother’s death.
What Urrea achieves in this sprawling and sensual novel is remarkable. Every paragraph holds its own; but together they tell the whole messy story of a family that, at its essence, mirrors your own.