A successful lawyer confronts personal demons while fighting for asylum for his undocumented partner. Set in the 1990s, Ortega-Medina’s latest novel is strong in themes of persecution and forced displacement, from the inherited traumas of Syrian-American Jews to the plight of Central American political refugees seeking harbor in the United States.
Marc, the lawyer, is the main character and the product of a rabbinical family, which in the span of two generations had to flee from Syria to Cuba and then from Cuba to the U.S. to escape religious intolerance. That background is important, though Marc enters the 90s narrative as a thirty-something, high powered lawyer who appears to have his life well in-hand. He’s a partner in a thriving, boutique firm and coupled-up with a live-in boyfriend, Isaac. They live comfortably in San Francisco, the perfect place for gay men to enjoy freedom and community, albeit in a time before marriage equality.
Quickly, Marc’s facade of happiness erodes. A caseload of ethically-questionable clients is burning him out and leaving him distracted and at risk of falling back into addiction. Isaac wants more from Marc, who works long days and forgets their plans to meet for lunch. Marc has a dream to move to the Napa Valley where he could build his own practice, and he and Isaac would be happier together. Then Marc is drawn into a fascination with a charismatic client, Alejandro, who has a sexual harassment suit against a gay employer. Soon after, a crisis hits. Isaac receives a summons from immigration court that could result in his expulsion to El Salvador. A decade earlier, Isaac crossed the border to the United States to escape the bloody civil war that took the lives of both his parents and his brother.
Flawed heroes can make for compelling reads, or, when the crafting is off-balance, they can turn the reader off. Given the rawness of American immigration politics, it’s possible that some will have a hard time finding sympathy with Marc’s missteps when he ought to be supporting the man he loves who’s undergoing a terrifying ordeal. The author has a lot to juggle here. Marc’s recovery from drug and alcohol addiction is on thin tethers. He’s in the midst of reconciling with his conservative family that cannot fully accept his gayness. He’s haunted by memories of his first boyfriend, a free-spirited, hallucinogenic-friendly young Israeli, whose death left Marc with scars of guilt.
That’s all relatable stuff, but as the story progresses, Marc scarcely resists the sketchy charms of Alejandro, whose history with gay men rather obviously suggests opportunism rather than victimization. Marc lies to Isaac about the nature of their relationship, and his actions jeopardize Isaac’s case for asylum. He’s so consumed by unresolved issues with his Israeli lover, he justifies his affair with Alejandro as a way to repair himself.
The author’s portrayal of Marc’s position has more compelling moments, particularly when his parents come into the picture, and one can feel Marc’s psychic toll from rejecting the religious aspects of his identity in order to live an authentic life. To his rabbi father, he’s rejecting a tradition of cultural pride against a world that sought to annihilate Jews or at least expel them. Marc is pulled in many directions. Isaac’s own traumatic history is a lot to deal with, and he withholds feelings and disappears for stretches at a time. Is Marc just doing the best he can? Is his entanglement with Alejandro forgivable, given Marc’s longtime struggle to distinguish love from emotional harm? At the very least, Ortega-Medina can be credited with creating a deeply thought-provoking story, whether it has you in its grip to see what happens next or has you screaming at your tablet at times.
As Isaac’s legal battle heats up, the story becomes more of a courtroom drama. The author is a lawyer himself and renders many procedural details that are educative to readers who want to take a deep dive into immigration law, while others may find themselves skimming through the pages. Where the story succeeds the most is in illuminating how the lived experiences of Jewish immigrants, Hispanic refugees, and LGBTQ+ people intersect around exclusion and the very right to exist. For that alone, it’s a noteworthy novel that will have resonance for many readers.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters