Book Review

Love and Other Rituals is an inspiring story collection that explores a wide range of Filipino characters who are moving through the world trying to understand love and the rituals that come along with it. The stories roam the Philippine Islands from Baguio, a beautiful mountainous area, to the busy streets of Manila and Cebu, and travel across the globe to Austin, Texas, Newark, Delaware, and all the way to New Zealand. Monica Macansantos’s characters are uniquely their own, occupying different statuses of class, privilege, gender, and age, but all are searching for a sense of home and belonging, struggling to navigate love and loneliness. Though they are all seeking to discover what love looks like to them, the characters are also unpredictable. They’re not characters meant to take you on a journey, introduce you to their world, country, city, or language, like many stories that feature non-white characters. These characters are the journey themselves and the focus of their own stories, living and existing in their own lives and at times making bad and selfish decisions. In this way, Macansantos creates a narrative that invites the reader into the nuanced experience of intimacy.

Macansantos’s voice uses a kind of quiet, slow clarity, which holds the main characters up for the viewing by the readers, introducing the reader to the moment, only to then slowly peel back the character layer by layer through flashbacks or moments of reflection, until we realize that the character, from the beginning of this story, had been, and is still struggling to figure out what love in their life looks like and how to act on that love with those around them. The answer is usually difficult and complicated.

We move through this collection meeting our protagonists in moments when they are at their most vulnerable, when the equilibrium of their lives is slowly being pulled away from them, and we are introduced to each one of them in vivid ways that instantly make you feel invested. In “The Feast of Souls,” we visit the Baguio cemetery in search of a child’s tomb, led by our child protagonist, Ina, holding “flesh-colored candies” as she accompanies her mother for the Feast of Souls. In this journey we learn about Ina’s aunt, who, in her grief and attempts to move on from her child’s death, has not visited her child’s grave in years. Instead, Ina’s mother­—against her husband’s wishes—has taken up the responsibility of visiting the grave once a year during the Feast of Souls to perform the ritual of lighting candles, cleaning, and painting the grave to both honor the child and also keep the grave from being thrown out by the city, as many abandoned graves are throughout the year. In this story, the first of the collection, Ina comes to the realization that she has a dead cousin, and grapples with the implications of their being someone who could have been in her life, whom she could have loved and who would have visited her when her aunt came to town, would have called her name, and played with her. Instead, Ina is searching for her grave among the many other tombs in the Baguio cemetery, dealing with the implications of death: “I wondered what I was supposed to do when I came with her and why she needed me to be there. I didn’t know how to behave in a cemetery, especially one that had babies buried in it.” When they finally find the grave, it’s under a pile of trash. As Ina watches, her mother performs the ritual of cleaning and lighting candles, paying one of the many painters in the cemetery that day to paint the grave. Ina realizes that the ritual is her mother’s act of love, an act being passed down to Ina, highlighting the importance and centrality of this ritual practice.

The rituals of love shift and change depending on the protagonist. In “Inheritances,” Andrew has a turbulent relationship with his father, a stern and heavy-handed man, and suddenly finds himself in the position of having to care of his father after he has been hospitalized, their roles of parent and son switching, while Rico, his brother-in-law, and his sister Carmina infantilize their father:

Rico pulled a piece of cotton from the bag he held, and soaked it in alcohol. “Daddy, you should be more careful with knives. They can hurt you,” he said, taking his father-in-law’s hand and rubbing the alcohol in. The old man yelled and tried to pull his hand away, but Rico’s grip was strong. “There, there. Don’t do that. I know it hurts, but this is good for you,” Rico said, in a sickly sweet, singsong voice. The old man’s hand fell limp, and he shook with weeping.

Carmina shook her head, looked at Andrew, and said, “This is all your fault. What did you want to prove, anyway?”

“He needed to peel those mangoes on his own,” Andrew said, meeting his father’s teary gaze with a steady look. “That wound isn’t deep. It’s going to heal.”

Amid various family resentments, Andrew realizes that the roles he and his aging, senile father have always played have switched, and this change shakes him at his core. He comes to the realization that he has now become the “man” of the family, something he had been avoiding, coming to the understanding that he was always going to return to care for his aging parents. Leaving and coming back when needed is his way of showing love. Like Ina, Andrew finds a new kind of love amid a tumultuous relationship.

Though the experiences and contexts of the characters are diverse, Macansantos highlights their similarity through the use of language. The importance of language is central to the collection. The characters look for the words or actions to define them, often with Filipino words that remind the reader that these stories are all connected, not just through theme, but through language. Whether the stories are set in Austin, Texas, or the beautiful mountains of Baguio at a country club, they are all rooted in the feeling of belonging. As someone who also writes by pouring my own home language into my short stories, I understand the draw of having characters inhabit different types of homes but tying them all back to the thing that makes them both unique and similar: their language. This use of language is sprinkled throughout the collection through terms of endearment and shared cultural experiences, like Andrew’s father calling his son “anak” (child) or Ina’s use of “taho” (a street dessert).

When reading this collection, I often found myself falling into a soft descent of anticipation and intrigue as each character gradually opened themselves up to me, revealing themselves through actions and words, because many of these characters go through a soft descent themselves, figuring out what it is they want from love or what love looks like to them now. Macansantos’s thoughtful world building is on full display in this collection through the different lives these characters inhabit and the losses they’re experiencing, and also through the love and tender moments they try to preserve amid longing and loneliness. In “The Autumn Sun,” she writes: “A sheet of paper can’t accommodate the shape of the universe,” suggesting the vastness of the universe in which these stories exist. Macansantos captures such moments within this universe and gifts us these characters’ lives, desires, longings, their pangs of being and belonging, and their attempts at holding onto love—romantic, parental, familial, and personal—going through the rituals that either preserve, give, or undo what is already there for them.

About the Reviewer

Bianca Melendrez Valenzuela is a Mexican-American writer whose inspirations come from her culture and experiences growing up in a border town between Mexico and the US. She is a MFA candidate in creative writing at Colorado State University and an associate editor at Colorado Review. Outside of her writing, Bianca works as a mentor to high schoolers through the Caminos Program of CSU advocating for the higher education of Hispanic and indigenous youth.