Sometimes a book is so warming, so charming and so compulsively readable that it wins you over despite its obvious flaws. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s The Dirty Girls Social Club is such a book. Smart, funny and vibrant, it tells the tale of six college friends – all of Latina background in some way – and their various lives, loves and dramas. If it sounds familiar, that’s because the idea of a group of girlfriends and their assorted troubles has been the basis of umpteen pop culture works, as far-flung as Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale and the television program Sex and the City.
But Valdes-Rodriguez manages to keep her book fresh, in spite of its well-worn concept. Her characters include Lauren, a newspaper columnist with a cheating fiancé, Elizabeth, a television anchorwoman and closeted lesbian, and Sara, whose seemingly perfect life is tainted by a controlling, abusive husband. Also in the mix is the uptight magazine magnate Rebecca, the lovable but materialistic Usnavys and the singer Amber who identifies so strongly with the indigenous people of Mexico that she changes her name to Cuicatl. The women refer to themselves as sucias, or dirty girls, and forge a tight bond that outlasts most of the others in their lives.
Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different sucia. Though Lauren clearly seems to be the focus of this story (almost every chapter starts with an excerpt from her “My Life” column), the more interesting chapters deal with Rebecca, Elizabeth and Sara, whose lives change in the most interesting ways. Unfortunately, Elizabeth is used sparingly and a plot turn keeps Sara out of the story for a good chunk of the book, but there’s plenty on the controlled, repressed Rebecca. With a troubled marriage to a white husband who regards her as more of an anthropological study than a wife (and with a growing attraction to another man) Rebecca is the character who grows the most in the novel, and it’s liberating to see her mask fall away throughout the course of the story.
The Dirty Girls Social Club comments on popular culture and on the bigotry that still exists in most workplaces (Lauren’s bosses at the paper are constantly on her to make her column more “Latina,” but chide her whenever she writes about social or political issues). There are some weak points, especially in the character of Amber, who never seems to gel with the other characters. But the book is so fun, lively and intelligent that its problems seem deeply forgivable. It’s a fluffy summer read, but chances are the characters will stick with you after the book is through. This is beach reading with a soul.