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Tarnished Beauty

A Novel

About The Book

Now available in paperback from the critically acclaimed author whose writing is “soulful and unsentimental” (Kirkus Reviews)— a profound story that reflects on the true meaning of beauty.

From the moment she was born, Jamilet’s gruesome birthmark frightened the superstitious villagers in her rural Mexican town, making them believe she was marked by the devil: “It was said by some to resemble a freshly gutted cow, by others to writhe like many snakes in a pit of blood. The few who had actually seen it said it was beyond description and that they were unable to sleep for days after seeing it.” When she enters young womanhood, she can no longer bear her lonely, scorned life as an outcast. She flees her oppressive village and illegally crosses the border to Los Angeles in hopes of finding a medical cure for her physical affliction. Eventually, Jamilet finds work at a mental hospital where she attends to the eccentric and disagreeable elderly Señor Peregrino. He begins to share with her the glorious stories from his youth when he embarked on a religious pilgrimage along the legendary and mystical Road to Santiago. An unlikely spiritual connection forges between them—healing their minds, bodies, and hearts in ways that medicine could not. Tarnished Beauty is a compelling story of redemption, faith, and the enduring power of friendship that examines the wounds of the soul.

Reading Group Guide

Jamilet is a beautiful young woman marred by a shockingly gruesome birthmark. It spills ominously over her back and down her legs, causing the villagers in her rural Mexican town to ostracize her. This angel with the devil's mark escapes north to Los Angeles, crossing the border illegally with the hope of finding a miracle.
After acquiring false documents, Jamilet finds work in a mental hospital. Her job is to care for a single patient, an elderly man from Spain, who is as disagreeable as he is mysterious. Jamilet is given strict orders to keep her distance, but when Señor Peregrino cleverly snags possession of her papers, he bargains with her; if she listens to his story, he will return her documents. Jamilet begrudgingly agrees and listens as he weaves a mystical and romantic tale of his journey along the legendary Camino de Santiago in Spain. By the time her companion finishes his story, Jamilet has found her miracle. And to her disbelief, it's not the one she'd been hoping for.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. What significance does the birthmark have for Jamilet? Discuss how she manages the reactions of others when they see her birthmark. Most importantly, how does its hold on her change as the story progresses?
2. In Mexico, how do the other villagers treat Jamilet? What explanations does the author give for their behavior?
3. In Mexico, Jamilet looked up to Tia Carmen for her constant laughter and positive outlook on life. In America, how do Jamilet's views of Carmen change? Is Carmen still able to serve as a role model for Jamilet, despite her addiction to alcohol?
4. On page 301, Señor Peregrino tells Jamilet, "You should know by now that you can't choose to hate any more than you can choose to love." Discuss this statement. How does this statement apply to Señor Peregrino's story? Discuss whether it accurately describes Jamilet's relationship with Eddie and whether it explains her relationship with Carmen.
5. The book has many characters who are ruled by their emotions, and most often these emotions take the form of love or hate. Which actions taken by characters in the book can be described as acts of love or hate?" Look carefully at the lives of Jenny, Louis, Señor Peregrino, and Jamilet. Are the characters aware when their actions are guided by emotions?
6. Compare the intimate relationships of Señor Peregrino (with Jenny and Rosa), Jamilet (with Eddie), and Carmen (with Louis). How do each character's perceptions and expectations of love and intimacy differ?
7. Was Jamilet correct when she said that Carmen wanted her around only to cook and clean the apartment? What other motivations might Carmen have for wanting Jamilet to remain with her?
8. Examine how the details of Señor Peregrino's pilgrimage story interact with the details of Jamilet's life. At which points do their stories seem to run parallel? Are there any points when Jamilet makes personal decisions based on what she has just heard from Señor Peregrino?
9. Jamilet tells Eddie on page 289 that "boys are hard on the outside and soft on the inside, and girls are the other way around." Do you agree with her? Which moments in the book show Jamilet's softness or hardness? How do her qualities of courage and toughness compare with Eddie's?
10. Prior to Jamilet, every assistant who waited on Señor Peregrino quit or was fired. In your opinion, why was Jamilet the first person to be successful in this position?
11. Señor Peregrino tells Jamilet that life is an illusion and truth is what we choose to believe. On page 321, he adds, "You must choose your stories, and believe in them with all your heart, and all your soul." What does he mean by this? Does Jamilet choose the correct stories in which to believe? Do you have any stories within your own life that you have chosen to believe?
12. During one of Jamilet's encounters with Eddie, "she was paralyzed by her yearning to be found, and it wrestled fitfully with her fear of being truly discovered" (page 260). In Jamilet's mind, what does she need in order to feel found? Has she been found by the novel's end? Are there other characters in the novel who are also yearning to be found? Which characters can claim that they've already been found?
14. Which aspects of Carmen's, Louis's, and Jamilet's experiences do you believe are common to other immigrants? Did the book change the way you think about Mexican immigration to the United States?
15. On her website (, Samartin ends her description of Tarnished Beauty, "Most of all, I write this story as a true believer in miracles." What are the miracles that occur in the story?
Enhance Your Reading Group
1. Visit the author's website ( for more information about her life and a description of her experience on the Camino de Santiago.
2. Find someone close to you with a story from their youth that they'd like to share. Arrange a time to meet with him or her and bring your audio recorder along!
3. Search the internet for photos and maps of the Camino de Santiago and bring them in to share with your book group. The website is a great place to start.
4. Take a closer look at the history and personal stories of American immigration by visiting This is the companion website for the PBS series "Destination America," a series which explores the driving forces behind immigration to the United States.

About The Author

Photo © Aaron Gil

Cecilia Samartin was born in Havana in the midst of Fidel Castro's revolution. She grew up in Los Angeles as a fully bicultural, bilingual American. She studied psychology at UCLA and marriage and family therapy at Santa Clara University. Deeply concerned with the lack of Spanish speakers in her profession, Cecilia has practiced within the Latino communities in some of the most impoverished inner-city areas of San Jose and Los Angeles. She lives with her British-born husband in San Gabriel, California.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (June 2, 2009)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416549512

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Raves and Reviews

"Samartin's clear eye and passionate heart imbue this novel with an unforgettably tender portrayal of the determination of the human spirit." --Nora Pierce, author of The Insufficiency of Maps

"In Tarnished Beauty, Samartin has created a splendid tale, peopled with rich characters she fashions with a knowledgeable and deft hand. Jamilet is endearing and tough, a revelation. Samartin is certainly a writer to watch." --Indu Sundaresan, author of The Splendor of Silence

"The greatest message in this wonderful book about believing in miracles, the power of storytelling and the relative value of beauty, is this: you're beautiful if you believe in your own beauty. Written in the vain of Isabel Allende." --In Magzine (a Dutch lifestyle magazine)

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