March 10: “Legends of the White Lady” by Mia Alvar

Greetings from lovely Daytona Beach! I’m pretty sure it’s Thursday, March 10, as I feel rested, but still hung over, so I didn’t sleep through an entire day. That’s a good thing, as I don’t get a lot of chances, at 42, to go on Spring Break trips, so sleeping through a whole day would really be a waste. Since I’m waking up on the beach, using last Tuesday’s USA Today for a blanket and a Burger King soda cut as a pillow, I’m not exactly sure where any of the guys are, or if they’ve found the Skylark (or if Bizquick found a way to meet us down here). The important thing is that this is our last day, my last day, before leaving tomorrow for Missouri, and I want to make the most of it. Still, Story366 duties calls, and I’m going to climb up that lifeguard chair over there and type up a post about Mia Alvar, whose book In the Country I read from last night, before, you know, desecrating myself in the name of childish nonsense and debauchery.

In the Country is one of the celebrated collections of 2015, the debut effort from Alvar that appeared on Knopf and wound up on a lot of people’s Best of lists at the end of the year. After reading a couple of the stories from the collection, I can certainly see why, as Alvar is a real talent, her stories long, thorough examinations of her characters, set, for the most part, in the Philippines, where Alvar was born. Sometimes the characters are Filipinos, sometimes they’re ex-patriates, returning to their country, and in the case of the story I’m writing about today, “Legends of the White Lady,” they can be an American (or other foreigners), visiting the island country.

“Legends of the White Lady” is about Alice Anders, and aging (relatively so) model who travels to Manila to secure a job. While she’s no longer a hot commodity in New York—if she ever was—she’s been around long enough to know her light hair and alabaster skin are still wanted commodities around the world, particularly Asia. She hears about a job for a jeans company and flies around the world for the booking, hoping to stand out. Alvar either has knowledge of the industry or did some telling research, as Alice’s steps through the interview process seem real and are intriguing. Alice knows just what to wear, what kind of make-up to put on, and how to present herself. She secures the gig despite all the younger and more exotic-looking models by presenting a blank slate, something that can be molded into what the company wants, instead of flaunting what she already is. A later scene has her play dumb and blond when she shows up with a tiny eating-binge bulge around her waste, sucking it in and laughing it off, causing her boss to laugh, too—her experience again keeps her employed. She, and every reader, will have to wonder: How long will she get by on guile, on cleverness, in this particular world? And remember, when it’s implied that Alice is a seasoned veteran, too old to be the next it, that means she’s probably 23 or 24. Or even younger.

Alice snags the gig and it seems like a pretty good one. She spends several days shooting at different Manila locales, a whole series of ads where she is the only woman in the shoot. She is in skimpy underwear or bathing suits in each, fawning over Jorge, the male model of the region, who prances around with nothing but a pair of the jeans on, staring at the camera as Alice stares at him. This seems like a big score for Alice, and for a couple of days, she excels. She is professional on set and off, and more importantly, she and Jorge have chemistry, which is integral. Each one of these locales, each shot, could use a different female model—really, wouldn’t that sell more jeans, imply more virility?—but they stick with Alice, who’s knocking it out of the park.

It’s not that simple, though, because this is a great short story in a great collection wouldn’t settle for such an easy arc. Early in the story, in the cab on the way from the airport, Alvar introduces the Legends of the White Lady in a conversation between Alice and the cabbie, stories about white, blond, American women coming to the Philippines and getting messed up in all kinds of serious ways, including murder and gang rape. They’re stories, but because Alice has worked in the Philippines before and she’s a white, blond, American woman, of course she’s not going to forget them. They put a cloak of doom over her visit, over the story; these legends become a Chekhov’s gun scenario: Why would Alvar bring it up if it wasn’t going to factor into the story? What this means is, Alice is more or less doomed, but to find out what goes wrong, to what extreme, you’ll have to read the story.

In the Country is another great collection I’ve discovered on this project, Mia Alvar’s talents brought together for us to enjoy. I highly recommend it. This book, and all the others I’ve stuffed into my pack for this crazy beach trip, have kept me grounded, made me remember Springfield, my job at Missouri State, what I’ll be driving back to tomorrow. Oh, and my family. I have a photo of them taped inside my left Croc. They’re neat, too.

Mia Alvar