3 min

What fresh hell is this?

Lost in L.A. films & fashion

Credit: Xtra files

Is it true that there are really only half a dozen stories to be told and novelists just keep writing one of the six? Well, maybe more than six, but you get the picture. There are two ways for a novel to knock a reader off her feet and one is the presentation of a story that doesn’t feel as though you’ve read it before – which is as much about good timing as anything. And the other, which occurs more frequently, is that the story may be familiar, but the telling of it is so fresh. Trace Elements Of Random Tea Parties by Felicia Luna Lemus falls into the latter category.

Set in Los Angeles Trace Elements Of Random Tea Parties tells the story of Leticia Marisol Estrella Torrez, a Mexican-American dyke who struggles with the grandmother who raised her and just about anything or anyone else who crosses her path. As a heroine, Leti is no pushover. She is distinctly contrary, perhaps even something of a brat and by her own admission a bit of a princess. At 17, she states, “I went to the closest university I could to study glamour and magic. Having lived my entire life not too far south of smoggy Hollywood dream factories, I had some serious stars in my eyes. Nothing was more fabulous than sitting around all day reading about and watching old movies. I waved my princess wand and had me a four-year magic carpet ride in film studies lined with scholarships and grants earned by growing up convinced that books and solitude were better friends than the kids at school.”

After graduation, Leti gets a job in a dog-grooming salon in Los Angeles, lives in a tiny apartment and doesn’t visit her Nana nearly often enough. She also hangs out at Crystal Room, a dyke bar described by her best friend as: “If you can get past the Birkenstocks groovy name, it’s a pretty great dive bar.” She perfects her look, which is a crucial element in the novel for a variety of reasons. This novel is written with a strong emphasis on the visual; if it were a film, you’d have to comment on the art direction.

Leti’s fashion sense drives her grandmother crazy: “Nana’s scowl materialized the second she opened the pink house’s back porch door and saw me standing there with my bleached rust-blond bobbed hair, my motorcycle boots and thrift store ratty get-ups – either ’40s-style baubles and housedresses or my baggy jeans and little boys’ T-shirts, bright with ads for auto garages and tow companies, sleeves tight and high on my arm.”

Leticia falls in love with K. And falls hard, as you might expect. “K, she glossed my life silver and gold and all found things that are bright, shining and perfect. She listened to the winding stories that flowed out from me, I felt certain it was safe to trust my winding talky-talky way with her silence. Being with her was so surreal intense in its pleasure that at times I wondered when a more staid reality would insist that the Technicolor set needed adjusting.” Headed for a crash? You know it almost as certainly as Leti keeps those kinds of thoughts away.

In what is at heart a classic retelling of any lesbian urban romance – think Sarah Schulman’s Girls, Visions And Everything set in late ’80s New York City – Lemus spins a story that is familiar. She packs it all in; from the occasional political rant (on how boys own everything, for instance) to the childhood humiliations that go with being the only Hispanic kid in a public school gifted program and then goes the extra distance with some great descriptions of the contemporary dyke boy, sex radical types who populate her particular LA landscape. Throw in a slightly mystical, Mexican spirit figure known as Weeping Woman who both haunts and guides our heroine through her turbulent life, and you get the picture.

It’s a sweet fast ride for a while and then the whole thing shifts gears and heads straight to lesbian breakup hell. Again, this is territory that’s being written about endlessly, but the freshness of Leti’s particular hell in this novel more than compensates.


Felicia Luna Lemus.

Farrar, Straus And Giroux.

249 pages. $37.95.