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'The Wonders' portrays the struggles of working women

Algonquin Books

In The Wonders, two women, living and working in Madrid generations apart, are always the caretaker, never the ones cared for. Their search for any little money and independence leads to solitude and sometimes self-destructive behavior. In her debut novel, out now in English, Spanish poet Elena Medel captures the plight of working women who are limited by class and gender dynamics.

The novel weaves back and forth through time. It begins in 2018, introducing the main characters on a night when women in Madrid are planning to marchacross the city demanding their rights. Alicia, in her thirties, searches her purse and pockets for enough money to get home after a late shift. Meanwhile Maria, who is older and retired but has worked her own share of grueling shifts in Madrid, is part of the march's planning meetings. Though the two have never met and are living separate lives, we learn that Alicia is Maria's granddaughter.

Another storyline takes place in 1969. Maria has moved to Madrid, leaving her newborn daughter, Carmen, with family at home in the southern city of Córdoba. Maria needs to make enough money so that one day Carmen can come live with her. But by the time she's saved up enough, Carmen is a teenager refusing to join her in Madrid.

The Wonders explores the struggles of motherhood, especially when those mothers are also facing poverty and dealing with men who take advantage. Among them is Alicia's father – Carmen's husband – who is found hanged, presumably by suicide, when she's only 13. Then she learns he has left the family riddled with debt. Once having lived a comfortable life, Alicia now faces recurring nightmares of her father's hanging body.

Alicia retreats into a solitary and rebellious adolescent phase, in which she annoys some kids who retaliate by hanging her up at school by her leg, a stinging metaphor.

Back to Maria – she never marries, clutching her isolation in Madrid as a symbol of control. Despite her need for money, she likes menial jobs that pay little yet involve some form of caretaking.

In one chapter Medel brings us Maria, attempting to tie baby Carmen's diaper back home on a visit and feeling disconnected from her. In another chapter, she is tying a diaper on an old woman she is taking care of in Madrid. One day, with Maria on the job, the old woman dies. Maria is alone and unable to process what it is she should do; she is helpless and desperate for someone to tell her, perhaps as a new mother would want guidance.

In Medel's intertwined stories Alicia grows up to never trust men yet always seeks them out for their bodies. Maria, close to age 70, refuses to marry her long-term partner so she can maintain her agency.

Again and again, the women are caught in the same binds. But these small acts of protest add up to each woman's larger fight for freedom from the confines of men, money and everlasting grief. In fact, the 2018 Women's March in Madrid returns as an important backdrop for both Alicia's and Maria's self-reconciliation.

Alicia and Maria have unknowingly lived on different planes of the same city. And they are doing what they can to make their lives their own – even as trauma is passed down from generation to generation. Though they have made mistakes and been lonely, they have survived. And that triumph they claim for themselves.

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Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.