'Say Her Name': a true-life story of love, marriage and death
Francisco Goldman's "Say Her Name" is a mesmerizing memoir of the author's love for his young wife, Aura Estrada; their happy spring-autumn marriage; her death at age 23; and his attempts to come to grips with her passing. Goldman will discuss his book May 13 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Francisco GoldmanThe author of "Say Her Name" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. May 13 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
'Say Her Name'
by Francisco Goldman
Grove Press, 350 pp., $24
"What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?"
This is the infamous question that opens Erich Segal's blockbuster-novel-turned-movie, "Love Story." In Francisco Goldman's memoir, "Say Her Name," details differ, but the plot sounds the same: True love is discovered, then lost, when the "girl" perishes before her time.
But "Love Story" was a soap opera. "Say Her Name" is the real thing — a true tale of a romantic obsession, of grief mediated not through a long shared history but, instead, through the aching awareness of what might have been. It is a vivid recollection of the dead woman's life and her unfulfilled longing. It's 350 mesmerizing pages that don't fit the usual script.
Aura Estrada was a black-eyed, black-haired student when Goldman, author of "The Art of Political Murder" and three novels, encountered her for the first time. He noted the gap between her front teeth, the beauty mark on her cheek, her leather boots. He also noted that she was 25 — more than two decades younger than he was. "My Latin American dream girl, ten years late," he lamented.
To his surprise, however, age and experience worked to his uncertain advantage. When Aura moved to New York for her graduate studies in late 2003, she moved into his Brooklyn apartment. Two years later, they were married, and less than two years after that, she was dead.
By retracing the story of her life, Goldman shows why their age difference didn't stop their relationship in its tracks. When Aura was 4, her mother, Juanita, abandoned both husband and hometown to move to Mexico City, where she eventually rose to the role of university administrator. In building her success, Juanita was even more ambitious for her only child. She was determined that her daughter become a professor.
Aura wanted to write. She also mourned her fatherless upbringing. Goldman, a well-established writer, sees the fit. "I played multiple parts," he says, "just as she did for me."
Goldman tucks his psychological insights between the lilting phrases of their mutual Hispanic heritage and snippets of Aura's work. Not unlike other bright and high-strung beginners, Aura was alternately confident and insecure, hopelessly romantic and frankly calculating. While Goldman cherished the "daily surprise of happiness" and prospect of children that she gave him, he was aware of Aura's own priorities.
"I told her, Don't worry, mi amor, I won't stick around longer than seventy-five, I promise. Then you'll still be in your early fifties, you'll still be beautiful, and probably famous, and some younger guy will want to marry you for sure. You promise? She'd say, cheered up or at least pretending to be, and I'd promise."
In spite of Goldman's pledges, of course, fate had other plans. A few months after her 30th birthday, the two went body surfing along Mexico's west coast. A rogue wave picked up Aura and shoved her into the sand, breaking her spine. Within days she was dead.
Juanita, Goldman's rival from the start, didn't mince words as her daughter lay paralyzed in the hospital. "Esto es tu culpa. This is your fault," she declared.
She not only claimed Aura's ashes but also pressured authorities to criminally charge Goldman for Aura's death.
Goldman, meanwhile, channeled his sorrow into "Say Her Name" and a literary prize named for his dead wife.
He coins the term "memoir novel" to describe his book, acknowledging some fictional elements. But, as with Dave Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," the changes are minor and hardly reduce the book's impact. Honest and exquisitely written, "Say Her Name" is a true-life love story with real emotional power.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."
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