Rating for "The House of Impossible Beauties" by Joseph Cassara (2018)
Rating: 4.5 stars
Aye, this book will simultaneously soothe your heart and break it into a million pieces.
“The House of Impossible Beauties” is a fictionalized account of the House of Xtravaganza, the first legendary all-Latinx ballroom house immortalized in the seminal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. We follow a cast of gay and trans women performers on the Harlem ball circuit as they escape abusive homes, love and lose one another, and deal with the devastation of the early AIDS epidemic. Some of the characters are instantly recognizable from the the film (Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza, for starters) while others appear to be composites of other known characters in the film.
I loved the beginning of this book, which starts in 1979. Angel is a young Puerto Rican teen who realizes that she is transgender. She feuds often with her mother, who refuses to accept her for who she is. She is taken under the tutelage of a well-known local drag queen, Dorian, and later falls in love with Hector, a dancer. Hector eventually recruits Angel to start their own house in the ballroom scene and the iconic House of Xtravaganza is born. Back stories are also given for other house members–Venus Xtravaganza, a trans girl who escapes a miserable home life, Juanito, an abused gay teen with a knack for sewing beautiful clothes, and Daniel, a banjee boy with major issues.
While the beginning of the book pulses with energy, the middle of it is terribly dull, veering dangerously close to misery porn territory. There is no way this should be so, given the vibrant real-life characters that this book is based on. I also have issue with the fact that, other than one scene in the middle of the book, we never actually SEE the inside of a ball. This is unacceptable. For a book that claims to be so much about the key people of this particular fashion and dance era, shouldn’t we be at the ball with them too? I’m outraged.
If you’re familiar with Paris is Burning, then you know that most of the individuals featured in it are now deceased–mostly casualties of the AIDS epidemic, and, in one case, murder. Thankfully the author handles this and other subjects surrounding them with care and a compassionate heart, which shows in the writing.
Also: to those who haven’t seen the documentary Paris is Burning, please do. It’s on Netflix and YouTube, the last time I checked. Whether or not you see it before reading this book is your choice, but I think that the film serves as a good companion piece to this novel. The film grounds you in the knowledge and illuminates the characters of the ballroom scene, while the book gives you the back story of their lives.
Needless to say, I love this subject too much to give it a bad rating. 4.5 stars, dahlings…