When a nanny from war-torn El Salvador moves in with a wealthy American family, the result is an inspiring story about the power of love to cross cultural boundaries.
Cecilia Samartin’s most impressive work yet, Vigil is told from the perspective of Ana, a middle aged woman who is waiting at the deathbed of her husband as he loses his battle against cancer. While she waits, she thinks back on her life and the incredible journey that brought her from war-torn El Salvador, to a convent in the U.S., and finally to a wealthy California estate where she was employed as the nanny for a dysfunctional family caught up in the throes of decadent life. Despite her traumatic past, she is able to bring a wealth of love and harmony to her affluent yet spiritually bereft employers—gifts that no money could ever buy.
In the course of Samartin’s work as a psychotherapist, she has been awed by those rare individuals who not only survive after having endured unimaginable trauma, but flourish, and are able to promote the same in those around them. Vigil is the story of one such woman and the family that she sets her heart on saving. A heart-wrenching story of love and loss, Vigil is Cecilia Samartin’s most powerful novel to date. As Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander said, “Samartin writes with shimmering grace about homeland, exile, passion, and loyalty.” Readers will be spellbound by Vigil’s magical language and provocative themes.
As Ana sits at her husband’s deathbed, she thinks back on the incredible journey of her life. Ana’s story takes her from war-torn El Salvador to a convent in the United States and finally to a wealthy California estate where she is employed as the nanny for the Trellises, a dysfunctional family caught up in the throes of a decadent life. Despite her own emotional wounds, she is able to bring love and healing to her affluent yet spiritually bereft employers—gifts that no money could ever buy.
Ana’s emotional attachment to her young charges leads to her staying on at the Trellis home for longer than she ever could have imagined. As she grows to love Teddy and Jessie as if they were her own flesh and blood, they eventually grow up and move out of the house, and her abiding affection for their father transforms into something deeper and more powerful. Faced with many challenges to her own sense of morality, Ana must confront her own spiritual longings and reconcile them with her understanding that love may have found her in the very place she least expected.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. “My father’s only saving grace was that before he disappeared he’d given my mother a magnificent sewing machine complete with a foot pedal and a carved wooden cabinet beneath.” (13) What important roles does this sewing machine play in Ana’s and her mother’s lives? How does its presence in their simple hut elevate Ana’s awareness of the presence of God? How does the absence of her father in her life impact Ana’s physical safety, and what role does it play in her connection with her mother?
2.How do the memories that Ana revisits during the course of Vigil give you a better sense of her character, and what has shaped her emotional development as a person? To what extent does the appearance of these memories throughout the novel distract you from the illness of Adam Trellis and its inevitable progress? Why do you think the author chose to fuse past and present in this manner, and how does her decision to do so complicate and enrich the narrative?
3. “Why? Why were my mother and all my family dead? Why had every man, woman, and child in my village been brutally murdered?” (31) How would you describe Ana’s experience of survivor’s guilt, and how does the mass murder that she alone survives imprint itself on her consciousness? What does her ability to adapt to life in a convent, and then in California in the Trellis home, suggest about her resilience?
4. What role does Sister Josepha play in Ana’s early life? What accounts for the kinship that develops between them? To what extent is Sister Josepha’s friendship with Ana her tangible link to her original desire to become a nun? What does Sister Josepha’s patient willingness to wait for Ana to join her in New Mexico reveal about her character and her feelings for Ana?
5. “It’s much easier to ponder the mysteries of life and death, to meditate in prayer while kneeling in your pristine sanctuary… [T]his is the antiseptic God that you worship, isn’t it, Ana?” (92–93). Why does Adam Trellis challenge Ana’s faith in their first encounter? To what extent is this initial exchange revealing in terms of the insight it offers into the nature of their future relationship? What accounts for Adam’s dismissive attitude toward God? Why would the prospect of an employee who aims to become a nun unsettle someone who is a committed atheist?
6. How does Ana succeed in taming Teddy Trellis? What role does Teddy’s mother, Lillian, play in this transformation? How does the near-drowning accident in the pool change the dynamic of Ana’s employment at the Trellis home? Of the two women, who exerts more of an influence on Teddy’s social and emotional development—first as a young boy, and much later as a young man—and why?
7. “When I didn’t answer him, he slipped his hands under me and carried me to the sofa. His nearness made me feel warm and alive as if a river had suddenly forged itself through my soul.” (175) Why is Ana willing to deceive Adam? To what extent is Ana’s effort to stall Adam motivated by an innocent desire to obey Lillian and protect her infidelity with Jerome from discovery? How does Ana conceal her attraction to her employer, even from herself?
8. Why does Cecilia Samartin, the author of Vigil, leave the explanation for Teddy’s absence from his father’s deathbed until the end of the book? To what extent should Teddy feel justified in his reaction to his father’s relationship with Ana? What do Ana’s efforts to repair the relationship between Adam and Teddy reveal about the true nature of her character? Do you think she should she feel conflicted about these machinations?
9. “Even so, as though greeting an old friend, I turned to admire the garden and, as always, took pleasure in the way the blanket of greenery and flowers undulated in graceful lines all the way to the wall that ran along the perimeter of the estate.” (385) How does the Trellis house function as a character of its own in Vigil? What does it have in common with other memorable houses in literature—like Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca orThornfield in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre? What does the house represent to each of the protagonists of the novel?
10. How does the closing image of the child at the sewing machine at the end of the book affect you as a reader? Who is this child? What does she represent to Ana? How does Ana’s calling her “mija,”—“my daughter”—in the same manner that her mother used to speak to her complicate the identity of this anonymous girl? How is her sudden appearance connected to Ana’s own recent discovery of the baby she will deliver?
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.
"Vigil is a moving novel about the resilience of the human spirit and the triumphant power of love and forgiveness. Ana's story takes the reader into grim poverty and war in gripping reality, yet Samartin simultaneously manages to illuminate the beauty of family and connection, and the driving light that propels Ana into adulthood. Beautifully told, Vigil is a book for my keeper shelf." -- Karen White, author of The Lost Hours and The Memory of Water
"Written with evocative grace and poetic beauty, Ana's story captured my heart on the first page and did not let go until long after the last heart-mending words. A story of losing one's homeland and beginning again, Samartin's storytelling is infused with tender insight into the wounded places of the human soul." -- Patti Callahan Henry, National Bestselling author of Between the Tides