For a YA fiction novel, The Meaning of Consuelo is a rather dark read. Cofer carefully lays out a map for the young reader to navigate through mental illness, suffering, the effects of poverty, and death among other difficult subjects.
Consuelo is twelve years old at the beginning of the book and living in the more Americanized section of Puerto Rico with her parents and younger sister, Milli. Their family is struggling--her mother's side fighting to keep tradition in tact while her father tries to fit in with the more "progressive" islanders. Beyond their ideological differences creating rifts, Consuelo's father is also quite the womanizer--so much so that his wife has resigned herself to the fact that he will never be entirely hers and helps him get ready for his dates with other women. Distracted by her problems, the mother leaves the parenting of the young Mili to Consuelo. Most of the time, Consuelo keeps a watchful eye on her younger sister and does a good job of keeping her out of trouble. The one time she slips up, though, Mili is sexually abused by a neighbor boy at a carnival while Consuelo is on the ferris whell and what happened leaves Consuelo in constant fear for Mili's wellbeing. She blames herself, especially, when Mili's behavior starts to change and becomes strange... even for a child.
Changing times bring hardships upon the family. Consuelo's best friend and older cousin Patricio begins to rebel, and soon talk of his homosexual lifestyle leaks out after he is caught with another boy near the the resort where Consuelo's father works bringing unwanted attention to the family on the island. While trying to defend Patricio, Consuelo decides to taste rebellion for herself after years of having too much pressure placed upon her young shoulders. When her family forgets her fifteenth birthday, when she's suppose to have an elaborate coming out party called a quinciera, she acts out by having sex with the boy at school she's been fliriting with--which in her town in the 1950s would mean that she would become a shame to her family and be impossible to marry off. Naturally, Wilhelm decides to brag about his sexual conquest to the rest of their school and Consuelo becomes an instant outcast. Her family is too distracted to pay attention to gossip about their eldest, however, when they are trying to figure out what is wrong with Mili and resorting to the help of psychics and doctors. When Mili is diagnosed with schizophrenia, their father protests and says he wants a second opinion from a better doctor and uses the situation as a ploy to convince his family to move to America where there will be medical care that's better capable of helping Mili. The mother agrees only to get her husband away from his mistress.
Right before the family is to move to Nueva York, Mili disappears while at the beach with her aunt and the reader is left only to believe that she has died. Consuelo ends up being the only one to leave as her family had planned and at the close of the novel we see her off to the airport where she will set off to fend for herself where no one knows her troubles.
Consuelo is a well developed character that I couldn't help but pity and cheer on. As a product of negligent parenting who has been tried too often while too young, she still managed to remain a strong and admirable character despite her flaws and mistakes. I think I almost liked her the most while she was doing the things that would cause her pain because she was making a life for herself outside the confines of her family, culture, and environment. She wasn't afraid to test the water and or push the envelope.