Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel Mexican Gothic is set in 1950 Mexico. Noemi is an educated socialite from Mexico City who loves parties, dresses, and leading men on. Although she wants a master’s in anthropology, she’s changed her field of study many times, and her father would rather this twenty-two-year-old young woman marry into a good family with money than go to school again. However, when a weird note from Noemi’s cousin Catalina arrives, the father strikes a deal: find out what’s going on with Catalina, who married a man from the prestigious Doyle family that’s gone broke — and after barely knowing him — and he’ll let Noemi go to grad school. Yet, the note felt too much like My Cousin Rachel, another Gothic novel.

Noemi arrives in a small village on the side of a mountain to be chauffeured by Francis Doyle, a man about her age who looks pallid and not cute. The helpful driver bit reminded me too much of The Turn of the Key. The Doyles are from England, having moved to Mexico years ago to open a silver mine. That’s where they got their wealth, but a massive flood wiped the mine out, and they’ve been clinging on ever since, keeping only their derelict mansion. Does Catalina’s husband just want her for money? Does Catalina’s odd note suggest she need a psychiatrist? Francis Doyle is the only one in the family who speaks Spanish. The rest are so racist and xenophobic that they not only brought their own servants and doctor from England, they shipped in British dirt for their garden. Noemi is not a welcome guest, and her intense nightmares that begin while staying with the Doyles are nearly cause for her to leave. The family tells her Catalina has tuberculosis, but that doesn’t explain the young woman’s mental state. Mexican Gothic is a buddy read I did with Emily @ Literary Elephant.

Here’s your fair warning that the first 150 pages of Mexican Gothic are tedious, boring, almost illogical, and I kept thinking how other authors did these plot points better. Noemi sounds like every flighty rich girl ever. The Doyles barely speak, so they seem like cardboard jerks. Told repeatedly she can’t visit Catalina for more than a couple of minutes, Noemi spends weeks just trying to fill her time. Why is she there? Why isn’t she demanding to see her cousin? She’s not told she can’t see Catalina because TB is highly contagious, but because Catalina is apparently always resting.

On top of that, the house is incredibly damp and full of mold you can see growing on the walls. How is that a reasonable place for a person with a lung disease, let alone any healthy human? The last time I did a buddy read with Emily, I gave up. I couldn’t do that to her again! I grumpily pushed on, rolling my eyes every time some man grabbed Noemi by the arm (my massive, enormous pet peeve and I don’t care if I’m reading historical fiction), or the patriarch, Howard, would talk about eugenics and inferior people, and how dark Noemi is. Major ew. Weirdly, the Doyles are in Mexico but nothing feels terribly Mexican or English — not the food, the diction, nothing. If the story contains a xenophobic family in Mexico, shouldn’t their cultural differences stand out?

But then, right about page 150, everything happened. Vivid dream sequences to give you nightmares, horrifying behavior from Catalina’s husband, Noemi maybe accidentally poisoning her cousin, Francis suggesting Noemi leave despite his obvious love for her, and so many mentions of mushrooms that I was getting serious We Have Always Lived in the Castle vibes.

I read and read and read furiously, covering the last 170 pages in a single evening. Moreno-Garcia teases out possible sexual violence enough to make you feel disgusting at the right level for a horror novel. I wasn’t sure who to trust because I’ve definitely seen Get Out, I was positive someone readers would think dead would pop up one more time for a last scare like in Scream, and the point I’m trying to make is this book will tap into everything you know about horror movies. I don’t want to do any spoilers, but I felt like Mexican Gothic could be a cousin of Horrorstör in terms of weirdness, which was great for me because I’m tired of the same worn horror plots.

Dear reader, I hate to ask you to push through 150 pages of what feels like a poorly written YA novel, but I do think it’s worth it for the rest of the book.

31 comments

  1. Very intriguing! Every time this book pops on someone’s feed, I get curious all over again. Then, I forget about it until the next time it pops up. I’m not sure I can deal with 150 pages to get to the good stuff though. Usually my limit before I drop a book is 100 pages.

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    • I mean, I wasn’t in agony, but I definitely felt “ho hum” about those first 150 pages. There wasn’t really any mystery yet. But once it got going, I was pretty pumped and finished the last 170 pages in one sitting.

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  2. Great review! I love how you list all the negatives first and then announce that it’s worth the read after all as a sort of plot twist, lol. Very suitable to the story in question! I was several paragraphs deep thinking “oh no, she really didn’t like this book at all!” before I caught on, and tbh it was a great technique, I was completely hooked! I like that you mention the specific gothic tales you saw echoed in Mexican gothic, too. As you know I felt much the same about the second half being stronger and worth the wait. And it was great fun chatting about the book afterwards of course! We shall have to do it again sometime. I’ve just ordered Gutshot and I’m hoping we can work something out with it, even though my fall schedule is up in the air atm.

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    • It would be AWESOME to talk about a short story collection with someone as part of a buddy read, especially someone as weird as Amelia Gray.

      I’m glad my review worked well to hook you in because I wanted to be clear that part of the book was not good quality simply because reviewers always have a reputation on the line, but it’s also much more exciting and pedal-to-the-medal later. If people are really horror fans, they’ll likely appreciate all the allusions to other horror works. I had a great time talking to you, too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I do remember you gave up on Actress before and when I read the start of the review, I was worried that this might be another dud! Thankfully (for Emily’s sake too) it’s not. I’m so amused that your review structure mirrored the way you felt about the book—a drag for 150 pages then furious page-turning for the last half. I’ve been taking a break from reading after exams, but something like this might be what I need!

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  4. You have me so intrigued! I was fully prepared to write this off as trope-y and not worth the time…but then you hooked me (which makes sense given that that was your experience reading this novel)! I’ve been going back and forth about this one, but you’ve convinced me that I should read it haha.

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  5. Huh, a big part of what appealed to me about this was the fact that it was something vaguely du Maurier-ish but set in Mexico, and I’d heard that it had a very strong sense of place. If that scene setting is not as good, I’m not so convinced by it.

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    • I definitely did not feel like we were in Mexico. Even if she got some Mexican food while in town, or it was clear that she was speaking Spanish with other Mexicans — something. The Gothic house feels very much like a Gothic house, but it could be located anywhere.

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  6. We’ll I’m glad I waited and ended up way down here in Comments. I know so little about horror that I needed the discussions to understand your review. It seems a shame that the author worked through all those familiar tropes and then failed to bring the location to life.

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    • Where in my review did you get bogged down? I know it was different from what I normally do in a review, but if I went with my standard model I would have had a hard time explaining why I still think someone should read Mexican Gothic if they’ve got the time and inclination.

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      • Oh don’t worry, I thought the approach you took to your review was original and effective. I just didn’t get enough of the references because it’s not an area I choose to read in.

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        • OH! Honestly, I didn’t think of how many references I included to other works, both books and film, but you’re absolutely right. It’s sort of like the poetry collection We Want Our Bodies back, which is likely much more effective for people who know the historical references she’s making.

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  7. Hmmm surprising! That’s too bad about the first half but sounds like its worth it. I think I’d really enjoy this one, especially knowing it gets better and better. As you know I like Shirley Jackson and the last Ruth Ware so I think I may search this one out…

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    • Remind me which Shirley Jackson you read? I think We Have Always Lived in the Castle is my favorite. It really captures the creepiness that is so Jackson to me. Hangsaman was close, but there is some dreaminess that can make it harder to follow along.

      I think the first half of Mexican Gothic is EASY to get through, just not interesting. At least it’s not confusing.

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  8. I’m glad this paid off for you. I have Moreno-Garcia’s previous book on my TBR so maybe I need to watch out for a slow start to that one too when I finally read it.

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  9. I completely agree with you!!
    The only thing that had me pushing through the initial few pages was the writing which is just beautiful but nothing much was happening storywise
    And then everything happened!
    Mexican Gothic has to be one of the best creepy houses stories I have read

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    • So wah-wah at first! I loved the creativity of the second half. The closest I’ve seen is is The Girl with All the Gifts, which has people turn into zombies after this mold or spore (I can’t remember which) gets into their brain. That’s a great book. Have you read it?

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  10. What an absolutely fascinating review! I love the comparisons to other gothic and horror novels and film. But, that’s enough to keep me away. I enjoy the suspense of gothic novels, but horror is definitely not for me.

    I haven’t read any by Moreno-Garcia, but I’ve heard her writing is gorgeous. You didn’t really mention it. What do you think of the writing? As her published works cover many genres, I wonder if I should consider some of her other works. Will you be seeking her writing out in the future.

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    • I don’t plan to read her again. The writing felt a bit juvenile to me, so maybe I would have loved her work in high school. I think this book would be too much for you because there’s some rather icky sexual moments and some horror descriptions that might get to you. You don’t want to give Baby Mercenary nightmares, which will surely lead to kicking.

      Liked by 1 person

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