Picks and Pans Review: Cellophane

updated 07/03/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/03/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Marie Arana

In one emblematic scene, a man tips his hat to a girl he's courting, and 24 yellow butterflies come fluttering out of it. Yes, we're in the land of magical realism, but even if that term usually has you backing toward the exit, you may fall under its spell when it's this well done. Certainly Arana knows the turf, thanks to her split-screen girlhood: She grew up in Peru and New Jersey. In 2001, her memoir of that unique experience, American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Now Arana emerges as a novelist to tell the exotic story of Don Victor, a man who builds a paper factory on the banks of the Amazon. When he rashly switches to making cellophane, he and everyone in his sprawling household are afflicted (magically) by an irresistible impulse to tell the truth. If life teaches us anything, it's that truth should be doled out sparingly, like fish food; when Don Victor and his dependents violate this precept, their world comes apart at the seams. And what a world it is: Arana's writing is both lush and funny as she conjures the increasing chaos in this virtual-reality jungle. Then come the arresting sex scenes. (Unfortunately, the best parts are too hot to quote.) The finale, which comes as a bit of a shock, brings to mind Apocalypse Now. First to last, Cellophane is a tale told with torrential imagination.

After her remarkable memoir was published five years ago, Arana said, "even a glowing review can wound an author." So I hope I'm not hurting her feelings when I say it: This is a great book.

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