Short story: “The Kontrabida”

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“The Kontrabida,” by Mia Alvar

Appeared in One Story on June 12, 2012 (volume 10 number 17, issue number 165); buy the issue or subscribe

About 26.5 full pages, ? words

I enjoyed this a lot, but the last line rubbed me the wrong way. Too obvious, I think:

“Through all the melodramas that my family and I had watched, in which the bida and the kontrabida crossed their swords over a woman, I never guessed that she might be the one to watch.”

I feel like that last line could have been struck out. The title already points to the significance of the Tagalog melodramas and their villains, and the narrator has already emphasized the meekness and passivity of the traditional female love interest, which corresponds so well to his mother’s ostensible meekness and passivity. That parallel is a little obvious too, but I think it works.

Alvar implies (in her One Story interview) that the narrator’s mother turns out to be the kontrabida. That’s not quite right, though, since there’s no bida, or hero, for her to go up against. If she’s a villain, she’s a villain only in a secret and ambiguous fashion.

I also found it pretty easy to guess that Loretta might have deliberately used too many patches on her husband, but that’s probably not a problem for the story, which is really about Steve’s changing understanding of his family. It makes sense for him to be in the dark for a long time (at least 5.5 pages).

Edit: I’m not sure what to think about the fact that Loretta may have used Steve’s gift to kill his father.  To me it seems potentially quite sweet—letting her son be the one to save her, indirectly—but also potentially quite cruel. Steve doesn’t seem to react to that point.

Another edit: When the reader of a story is aware of something that the narrator is not, it’s common for the author to give the reader a wink over the narrator’s head. This story doesn’t do that, I don’t think. Steve sometimes admits his own naivety and obliviousness (as in the line quoted above), but he doesn’t inadvertently flaunt it. I think that’s a good choice because it keeps the focus on Loretta, the mystery of her character, the things her son doesn’t understand.

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