The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
2021’s The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina was practically a perfect book for me. It’s filled with fantastical magic that baffled me and thrilled me, and it brought to mind the early books of Isabel Allende. The Montoya family were complicated and realistic, in a real-world setting that simmers with magic and strangeness. While much of the story takes place in an undesignated “present” that seems very much like now (without pandemics), the history of Orquídea Divina’s life takes us to Ecuador in the late 1950s and early sixties.
Orquídea Divina Montoya appeared in the dried-up town of Four Rivers (the rivers are gone, it seems), with a husband in tow, and magicked up a beautiful house. Over the years, she coaxed the dry valley into lushness, both gardens and orchards, buried four husbands, and raised a bunch of kids and grandkids. Now the family is spread across the USA, until missives delivered in plainly magical ways appear, calling them back to Four Rivers, to “claim their inheritance.”
The book has three protagonists; Orquídea herself, her granddaughter Marimar and grandson Rey, who are cousins although they were raised together after Marimar’s mother drowned in the valley’s lake. Both have moved to New York City, and neither one is happy. They agree to drive back together. There, they find that Orquídea is facing mortality in a very strange way, and before the family’s night together ends (it ends in fire) a great-granddaughter will be born, secrets will be uncovered and ghosts will visit.
Meanwhile, we meet Orquídea as a baby, born under a curse. She grows up in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in poverty, but her indomitable will leads her to meet a river monster, who offers help. Orquídea, like the flower for which she is named, is unrooted, and her drive to find rootedness, a home, will lead her many places… and bring down an even more virulent curse on her family.
In the present, the family achieves success and happiness in the seven years after Orquídea leaves mortal form and the house burned. Marimar has rebuilt it. Following his grandmother’s final words of advice, Rey has pursued his painting, and is a highly successful artist. Suddenly, over a few days, three of Orquídea’s children die, and Rey is pursued by a glowing man and nearly killed himself. The family regroups again. Now the stakes for finding and stopping the mystery man from Orquídea’s past, the so-called Living Star, are literally life-and-death.
On a trip to Quayaquil, Marimar, Rey, along with their seven-year-old cousin Rhiannon (born the night of the fire) and her parents, finally learn about the early years of their grandmother’s life, and this knowledge places them in immediate danger.
The tones of the book shift depending on the section, and the pitch is always true, whether it’s Rey being snarky, or Orquídea standing up for herself in a hypocritical and rigid society. The Montoya family is large, and Córdova evokes them concretely while not devoting chapter and verse to each person. The mix of everydayness and magic that fills the Four Rivers house makes the story believable, and I found Marimar’s and Rey’s shock as they uncover lie after life told by their grandmother to be plausible and totally relatable. The past tense story, which involves a carnival, is wonderful and strange. The ending was emotionally satisfying.
The difference between a five-star book and a four-point-five star book can be tiny, and in this case it is literally one or two sentences. The baby born at Four Rivers, Rhiannon, is clearly a magical child, and in a book filled with magic, I accepted that completely. She feels like a real child, just as her parents felt like a real couple. In Guayaquil, they are attacked by the villain, in the house where they are staying. This is the strongest attack yet, with tragic consequences for beloved characters and a terrible aftermath for Rhiannon. The book catalogues what our characters do after the loss of family; Rey gets drunk, Marimar obsessively reviews the photos they’ve found, searching for a clue, and seven-year-old Rhiannon “hid in the garden, crying and whispering to the grasshoppers…” She is magical, but she is also a traumatized child, and neither cousin even considers her feelings in this moment. Rhiannon is cared for, of course, by the native housekeeper. At this point, both Rey and Marimar dropped in my estimation. As the story continues, it never comments on their neglect. This changed how I saw Rhiannon. Throughout the book she’d seemed like a person to me — with this treatment of her by the story, I realized she was not a magical child, but the Magical Child, a plot device, not a character. While this came very close to the end of the book and I was still engrossed, I never re-immersed myself in the words and the world the way I had at the beginning. For this reason only, the book gets 4.5 stars. I know it’s picky.
In spite of this, I highly recommend this story. Based on it, I’m going to seek out Labyrinth Lost.