House of Impossible Beauties charts the lives of the drags queens that formed the beginning of legendary Latino drag house, the House of Xtravaganza. In 1980s New York City, Angel is seventeen and finally coming into her own. When her mother rejects her, she looks for a new family in the ball scene, where she meets Hector. They fall in love and decide to create their own all-Latino house, with Angel as the ruling mother, and Hector beside her as house father. When Hector dies from AIDs-related causes, Angel must mother her drag children alone. Venus, Juanito and Daniel all lean on each other and their mother Angel, as they learn how to navigate the ballroom scene, along with sex work, drug addiction, and society’s rejection of their true selves.
“Isn’t it our love that got us into this whole mess in the first place? The misfortune of being born with too much love for the people that society says we can’t love.”
I really wanted to love this. I really, really did. The cover is beautiful and the concept sounds fantastic. Plus, I was lucky enough to win a signed edition from the publishers when it was first released. Unfortunately, this fell flat for me and fell pretty hard.
I did like the characters, particularly Daniel and Juanito. I was interested in their story and the direction that it took. Dorian’s chapters, though few and far between, were poignant insights into the drag scene delivered with beautiful yet brutally honest prose. However, Venus and Angel began to meld into one character for me. I had to remind myself of their backstories to keep them separated in my head, as their mannerisms and way of speech eventually seemed almost identical by about the midway point of the book. Furthermore, though the disclaimer at the beginning of the book specifies that it is a work of fiction, there’s no escaping the fact that these were real people. There was something a little uncomfortable about reading a fictionalised account of their lives, especially as the novel explores aspects that are so personal.
I also found the writing a little difficult. This is likely down to my own cultural stand-point; there’s a lot of Spanish dotted throughout the book to the point where I sometimes couldn’t even use context cues to understand what was being said. Blame that on my own British monolingual ignorance though. There’s also a lot of slang and drag-scene-related terms, not only in the dialogue but throughout the narrative. It’s understandable and does add a layer of authenticity to the novel but after a while, and in specific characters’ chapters, it felt overdone to the point that it became tiresome to read. There was a reviewer on Goodreads who mentioned that it felt like reading Paris is Burning fanfiction, and honestly, that is a little what it felt like, at least for the first third of the novel at least. After that, I kind of got more used to it and didn’t notice it as much.
There were parts of this novel I liked, and maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it at another point in time, but this time around it wasn’t right for me.
Rating: 2 / 5 stars