September 10, 2013

The Hectic Road to Compassion: A Review of Lorraine Lopez’s The Realm of Hungry Spirits by Nicole Bartley

cover credit: Hatchette Book Group
The Realm of Hungry Spirits by Lorraine Lopez
Grand Central Publishing (2011)

Review by Nicole Bartley

The Realm of Hungry Spirits by Lorraine Lopez is an overwhelming search for personal peace, for both characters and readers. Lopez drops readers into the main character’s varied and complex life, and readers will be compelled to learn how the drama unfolds and resolves—all in the span of two weeks. They may also reach for a bottle of wine just to tolerate the stress.

Marina Lucero is a middle-aged teacher who opens her home to friends and family members in need of shelter. Her unstable life becomes overrun with their troubles, such as her friend Carlotta who flees from an abusive husband, her nephew Kiko who is kicked out of his house, her little sister’s ex-fiancé Reggie who is grieving from their recent breakup and living with Marina for the time being, and her well-meaning but dimwitted ex-boyfriend Rudy and his blackmailing friend. Everyone turns to Marina because she is intelligent, reliable, and giving. To relieve her chaotic life, she relies on teachings from the Dalai Lama and Gandhi—teachings that play heavily into the overall plot.

But Marina—despite her good intentions, responsibility, propensity to care too much, and lofty spiritual goals—is an unreliable narrator amongst many unreliable characters. Her emotions can flip at least three times in one page, and she is subject more to rage and pheromones than the rationality she attempts to wield. Her loneliness gets the better of her more often than not, and readers are left wondering how one so intelligent can lack emotional follow-through.

Luckily, Lopez is deft at making readers quickly sympathize with Marina’s plight. From the first chapter, readers are bombarded with Marina’s troubles in order to quickly understand her anger, annoyance, and exhaustion: Her nephew starts a rap band one morning and by the evening, he’s acquired a small dog to train for fights and claims it’s his calling; a neighbor’s sister asks Marina to help her pack belongings but is caught in the act of trying to rob a former married lover; Marina’s younger sister dates and seduces anyone who might seem financially well-off; and an ex-boyfriend’s best friend threatens spiritual curses if Marina doesn’t follow the friend’s instructions concerning his custody deposition. The tribulations quickly pile atop Marina, and it’s a wonder she manages to keep everything in line.

Through numerous extreme situations and their resolutions, Lopez shows that everyone should be accepted and forgiven, despite their flaws. This, in the end, is the main lesson of the book: to recognize similarities, not differences, in others and accept them. This Buddhist method of compassion has a Christian correspondence: “God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

For example, when Marina’s harsh words about another man backfire, they open her eyes to one of the Dalai Lama’s true meanings behind his teachings. Lopez writes:
“I nod, my cheeks suffusing with heat. The Dalai Lama’s gentle face appears in my mind’s eye, his expression sharpening into disapproval, even disgust. Compassion, he writes, is built upon connections forged through recognizing similarities, not by fixating on differences and holding in contempt those who are different, as if they are lower than the self” (122-123).
Throughout the story, Marina seeks like minded people who are intelligent, responsible, and clean. Those who don’t fit these traits are usually met with consternation and impatience. It takes a small family to make her realize she’s been looking at compassion with the wrong perspective. She doesn’t often recognize the good in people around her until they shove it in her face. The passage above is a subtle turning point in the story—a eureka moment for her.

Although Marina’s internal world grounds the story, readers unfamiliar with Los Angeles may feel lost amidst the geographical references and the consistent use of Spanish in both narration and dialogue.  They may also wonder if life is really how she depicts it: poverty results in insanity and promiscuity, most men are too lazy to be responsible for anything, and most uneducated women are weak, selfish, and manipulative. It’s not a pretty rendering. Yet, most of the characters exhibit a moment of pure humanity, such as when an abusive husband reveals intense love and stand-offish teenagers show compulsions to please. If readers substitute their own neighborhoods for the one in Lopez’s novel, they might recognize themselves or the people around them. This returns readers to the aforementioned passage; there is always something that connects us to everyone else, and we must recognize that similarity and feed it in order to gain peace.

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