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The House of Impossible Beauties
Cover of The House of Impossible Beauties
The House of Impossible Beauties
A Novel
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NAMED A RECOMMENDED BOOK OF 2018 BY Buzzfeed • The Wall Street Journal • The Millions • Southern Living • Bustle • Esquire • Entertainment Weekly • Nylon • Mashable • Libary Journal • Thrillist

"Cassaras's propulsive and profound first novel, finding one's home in the world—particularly in a subculture plagued by fear and intolerance from society—comes with tragedy as well as extraordinary personal freedom." — Esquire

A gritty and gorgeous debut that follows a cast of gay and transgender club kids navigating the Harlem ball scene of the 1980s and '90s, inspired by the real House of Xtravaganza made famous by the seminal documentary Paris Is Burning

It's 1980 in New York City, and nowhere is the city's glamour and energy better reflected than in the burgeoning Harlem ball scene, where seventeen-year-old Angel first comes into her own. Burned by her traumatic past, Angel is new to the drag world, new to ball culture, and has a yearning inside of her to help create family for those without. When she falls in love with Hector, a beautiful young man who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, the two decide to form the House of Xtravaganza, the first-ever all-Latino house in the Harlem ball circuit. But when Hector dies of AIDS-related complications, Angel must bear the responsibility of tending to their house alone.

As mother of the house, Angel recruits Venus, a whip-fast trans girl who dreams of finding a rich man to take care of her; Juanito, a quiet boy who loves fabrics and design; and Daniel, a butch queen who accidentally saves Venus's life. The Xtravaganzas must learn to navigate sex work, addiction, and persistent abuse, leaning on each other as bulwarks against a world that resists them. All are ambitious, resilient, and determined to control their own fates, even as they hurtle toward devastating consequences.
Told in a voice that brims with wit, rage, tenderness, and fierce yearning, The House of Impossible Beauties is a tragic story of love, family, and the dynamism of the human spirit.

NAMED A RECOMMENDED BOOK OF 2018 BY Buzzfeed • The Wall Street Journal • The Millions • Southern Living • Bustle • Esquire • Entertainment Weekly • Nylon • Mashable • Libary Journal • Thrillist

"Cassaras's propulsive and profound first novel, finding one's home in the world—particularly in a subculture plagued by fear and intolerance from society—comes with tragedy as well as extraordinary personal freedom." — Esquire

A gritty and gorgeous debut that follows a cast of gay and transgender club kids navigating the Harlem ball scene of the 1980s and '90s, inspired by the real House of Xtravaganza made famous by the seminal documentary Paris Is Burning

It's 1980 in New York City, and nowhere is the city's glamour and energy better reflected than in the burgeoning Harlem ball scene, where seventeen-year-old Angel first comes into her own. Burned by her traumatic past, Angel is new to the drag world, new to ball culture, and has a yearning inside of her to help create family for those without. When she falls in love with Hector, a beautiful young man who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, the two decide to form the House of Xtravaganza, the first-ever all-Latino house in the Harlem ball circuit. But when Hector dies of AIDS-related complications, Angel must bear the responsibility of tending to their house alone.

As mother of the house, Angel recruits Venus, a whip-fast trans girl who dreams of finding a rich man to take care of her; Juanito, a quiet boy who loves fabrics and design; and Daniel, a butch queen who accidentally saves Venus's life. The Xtravaganzas must learn to navigate sex work, addiction, and persistent abuse, leaning on each other as bulwarks against a world that resists them. All are ambitious, resilient, and determined to control their own fates, even as they hurtle toward devastating consequences.
Told in a voice that brims with wit, rage, tenderness, and fierce yearning, The House of Impossible Beauties is a tragic story of love, family, and the dynamism of the human spirit.

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About the Author-
  • Joseph Cassara was born and raised in New Jersey. He holds degrees from Columbia University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has been a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This is his first novel.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    Starred review from August 1, 2017

    This exceptional first novel opens in 1980 New York with 16-year-old Angel feeling trapped in her boy body. But she does something about it: she starts wearing women's clothes, which brings out the rage of her hard-drinking mami, and introduces herself to larger-than-life diva Dorian. Then there's Thomas, first introduced as a Barbie-loving boy from Staten Island and next as a runaway named Venus, who's saved from a beating by Daniel. Venus takes him home to her family of trans outsiders, which includes Angel as mother and handy-with-a-sewing-machine Juanito, with whom Daniel finds love. But all families have their problems, and this one faces more than its fair share, starting with the advent of AIDS. The writing is erotically luscious, lyrically intense, forthrightly in your face, and pitch-perfect in the dialog, and the suspense comes from wondering what's going to happen to these people. When Dorian tells friend Keith of one of his AIDS-inspired paintings, "Where is the beauty?" Keith responds, "You're telling me that I need to turn this virus into something beautiful?" Taking on the difficult lives of his characters, that's exactly what Cassara has done. VERDICT A grittily gorgeous work for readers who don't go for cozies.--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    November 1, 2017
    A first-time novelist visits queer Harlem in the 1980s.Founded in 1982, the House of Xtravaganza was the first strictly Latinx house to join New York's ballroom community, the gay subculture brought to the popular consciousness in 1990 by Madonna's "Vogue" and the film Paris Is Burning. Although Cassara is careful to note that his debut is a work of imagination, this is a story about the House of Xtravaganza, the people who created it, and the people who made it their home. Angel--loosely based on Angie Xtravaganza, the first "mother" of the house--is 16 when the book starts, living in the Bronx and beginning the transition from "Angel the he" to "Angel the she." A chance encounter with the gorgeous Jaime leads to the acquisition of a silver dress and satisfying sex but, more importantly, a sense of possibility. The newly liberated Angel becomes an acolyte to (real-life) drag queen Dorian Corey, which leads Angel to an affair with Hector, who will establish the House of Xtravaganza (in both fiction and fact). The word "house" is both a nod to Paris ateliers and an acknowledgement that ball culture functioned as a home to people who were not welcome elsewhere, just as the titles "mother" and "father" have a special meaning to queer, cross-dressing, and transgender kids rejected by their families of origin. As Hector and Angel build their family of choice, the novel acquires new characters and perspectives, and it presents a wide-lens view of the joys and sorrows of a culture created by racial and sexual minorities. AIDS, of course, casts a terrible shadow over the community depicted here. But this is not, primarily, a social novel. In terms of tone and style, it's closer to Valley of the Dolls than Giovanni's Room, and this feels absolutely appropriate. Glamour is a refuge to Angel, Hector, and the kids to whom they give a home. Their stories deserve a bit of glitter.Fierce, tender, and heartbreaking.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    December 4, 2017
    Angie and Venus Xtravaganza were key members of the New York drag ball scene made famous to outsiders by the 1991 film Paris is Burning. Cassara’s debut novel imagines them as runaways fleeing impoverished, unsupportive, or abusive homes; ball circuit stars embodying the glamour they craved; loving sisters and mothers to needy gay teens and each other; and grieving, jonesing, dying women. There’s also a love story between Juanito and Daniel, younger runaways whom Angel (as she’s called here) and Venus take in and teach to walk a ball and work the street. Impressionistically covering the period from 1976 to 1993, the book is long on origin stories and grief, as lovers and friends die of AIDS, johns fail to keep their promises, and cocaine and crystal meth take their toll. What it lacks, besides the ball scene, which readers see little of, is the feeling that Cassara is adding something to the story. While readers who are too young to know this history may appreciate having access to
    a dramatic moment and some of the legendary figures who populated it, those for whom this is more familiar territory may find themselves wishing for more insight. Angel and Venus may get to tell their story here, but they largely come across the way they looked from afar: as strong yet fragile, street-smart, shade-throwing, generous, and ultimately doomed divas.

  • New York Times Book Review "Vividly imagined. . . . Riveted by their stories, you are so struck by the Xtravaganza's strength and determination, by their vibrant spirits and humor, by their creativity, by their sensitivity to beauty and their capacity to give and receive love."
  • Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tinkers "A marvelously serious, deep, artful, humane read. I'm really knocked out by this...[Cassara] managed to put actual, living, breathing human beings on the page....There's so much downright gorgeous prose here, so many beautifully and precisely observed images, subjects, emotions. Beautiful because true."
  • Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Harmless Like You "Joy and loss clutch hands in The House of Impossible Beauties. It is a tragic book, a lyrical book, a defiant book, and ultimately a loving book. The heroines and heroes hold fast to love and Cassara clearly has deep love for every character who struts across these pages."
  • Nami Mun, author of Miles From Nowhere "Underneath the grime and glitter, The House of Impossible Beauties is quietly about necessity and defiance, about love and death, about characters who ache to be alive and seen in a world that mirrors back nothing but rejection and violence."
  • Entertainment Weekly "Passionate...empathetic and vibrant."
  • The Economist "Vivid and engaging. . . . The novel feels like an anthropological plunge into another era, enhanced by rhythmic, urban prose littered with slang and Spanglish."
  • Nylon Magazine "It's impossible to not feel utterly transported, to feel the hum of the music in your cells, to vibrate with the energy of the time and place, with all its attendant exhilarating highs and devastating lows."
  • Entertainment Weekly "This is a definitive LGBTQ family story, of the sweep and intimacy that's typical in family sagas while also steeped in the trauma and sass specific to its milieu."
  • Harper's Bazaar "Infused with glitz as well as heart, the story explores life as racial and sexual minorities—the pains and the triumphs, the grit and the thrills—in a way that feels personal, even for those who never walked the ballroom scene."
  • O, the Oprah Magazine "A vivacious debut."
  • The Millions "Cassara immerses us in a New York that we may think we know from countless other novels and films, but which is, in fact, significantly more complex (and more urgently relevant to us today) than previously imagined."
  • Town & Country "Simultaneously tender and tragic, Cassara chronicles the House's inception, its role in cultivating family for outcasts in the community, and spotlights the wholly original personalities that brought it to life."
  • Library Journal (starred review) "Exceptional...The writing is erotically luscious, lyrically intense, forthrightly in your face, and pitch-perfect in the dialog, and the suspense comes from wondering what's going to happen to these people...A grittily gorgeous work for readers who don't go for cozies."
  • Booklist (starred review) "Cassara has done a superb job of reimagining a world that will be foreign and even exotic to many readers, while creating fully developed characters to populate it. The tone is singularly apposite....A compassionate story, which is altogether moving and unforgettable."
  • Kirkus Reviews "Fierce, tender, and heartbreaking."
  • Library Journal " [An] exceptional debut...The book's social truth is unsettling, its dialog deft, its characterization affecting, and its language both gritty and luscious."
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