Kathleen Popa's To Dance in the Desert traces main character Dara through a tiny country town in the American Southwest, where she has gone to escape the media frenzy over the sensational death of her father and husband, and shows her journey towards wholeness, with the help of a nature-loving free spirited neighbor and the staff at a nearly forgotten diner. Kathleen Popa's To Dance in the Desert's main character Dara lost both her father and her husband on the same day, in a car crash instigated by her abusive husband. To escape the media's questioning and the memories of their deaths, and the guilt she feels for having married the wrong man and brought this on her family, she retreats to a small town in New Mexico. She assumes no one will know her or speak to her there, and she can lock her door and just keep to herself for a good long while, living simply off of money she received in a court settlement.
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When she arrives, though, she can't take her eyes off of the woman who heads out alone each evening and dances at sunset. She turns out to be Dara's nearest neighbor, Jane. Jane invites Dara to join her dance, which she says is to celebrate the beauty of creation. Dara isn't ready yet, but she does stop to talk and get to know her.
Dara begins to meet people in the town, including an elderly beauty queen, a Bible professor obsessed with following a list of rules he thinks will cause God to restore his relationship with a daughter he has nearly lost to drug addiction, and Tom, a single father with a five-year-old daughter who obsessively plays with cards and runs out of the house.
She and Jane gradually become friends, even though Jane's freewheeling ways scare her as much as they entrance her. She also develops a friendship with Tom and his daughter Clemmie, and ends up restoring an old restaurant, the Brittlebrush Cafe, that was in Tom's family but has nearly gone out of business. The cafe belonged to Tom's wife, a highly extroverted Latina singer and dancer whose personality and ability to prepare foods from her homeland made the place what it was. Getting the place remodeled and open for business gives Jane and Dara employment and a chance to help Tom start to live again after his wife's death.
Dara comes to love evening hikes, camping trips and moonlit adventures with Jane, and appreciates that no one in town bothers her about her past. However, she has one more personal quest: to find the mother who left her and her father when she was a young girl. This is another part of why she selected this town: there is a gift store carrying ceramics similar to her only memento of her mother, which is a wall hanging with a cat and initials.
By asking around about who purchased, and who resold, the cat artwork, she gets clues to the whereabouts of her mother. The Bible professor tells her that if there's anything she wants in her life, she must follow his list of rules as well, which derive from a strict interpretation of the Ten Commandments. She embarks upon his program, even throwing away an authentic kachina doll that was a gift from Jane. And, within a few weeks, a strange, gaunt woman begins following her partway home from church and the grocery store.
Eventually, Dara gets up the courage to approach this woman, who invites her to coffee at a cheap diner. Turns out she isn't her mother, but her former mother in law, Sophie. As a recovering alcoholic, Sophie is required to find and apologize to everyone she has harmed as a result of her addiction. She feels that she was not a good mother to her son, who then abused his wife as a result. Desperate for a man to support her, she married a wealthy doctor and turned the other way as he sexually abused her son. After the news about the deaths in Dara's family, she became so crazy with guilt that she nearly drank herself to death, losing her home and job and what family she had left.
To comfort Sophie, Dara tells her that the newspapers have sensationalized her story. Her husband turned out perfectly well, and her marriage was quite happy. Sophie has no need to apologize. Afterwards, Sophie begins to heal and get her life back. Although she is glad to have helped her feel better, Dara still wonders if lying were the wisest thing to do. Still, though, it was better than miserably following the list of rules, which she throws away.
Eventually, Dara does find her mother, an older woman who also wants to be left alone, and who is not quite there mentally. Dara knows this woman is her mother because she has the cat in the picture, and ceramic hangings just like the one she left for her daughter. At first she rejects Dara and does not want a relationship, but then over time she warms up to her daughter, allowing her to clean out the mounds of objects she has hoarded over the years. She confesses that she has always loved Dara, but that she was herself abused as a child, and got into an argument over that with Dara's father. She was too proud to stay at home after losing an argument and left then for her own life.
Dara realizes that her relationship with her mother will likely always be complex and imperfect, but she vows to stay present in her life anyway. She also wonders if she is developing feelings for Tom, as the two still work together at the Brittlebrush Cafe.
Near the end of the book, the solemn Bible professor's troubled daughter returns home and gets clean, Jane falls off a cliff during one of her evening dances and spends time in the hospital, and Clemmie, the five-year-old, runs out and is gone for nearly a whole day. The townspeople support each family during what they face,
At the very end, Dara accepts that she will not get all the answers, or all the happy endings she seeks, but it's worth it to do what she can and to participate in society anyway.
Best part of story, including ending:
I loved how this story didn't have a neat, happy ending but was still very positive. For example, Dara's mother was neither dead nor immediately happy to see her, but the two worked out a relationship. And how it didn't focus on romance, which has been done so many times. Dara and Tom are still just friends by the end of the book, and the story is really about the small-town nature, diner, and community.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was Dara's reaching out, in her imperfect way, to the mother of her dead and horribly abusive ex-husband. Sitting across from her at the table in the diner, she just reached out and told Sophie that she had nothing to apologize for, that her life had turned out just fine. She was offering forgiveness in probably the only way she could think to at the moment, without making Sophie feel as if she were just saying it to be nice.
Opinion about the main character:
Dara was able to absorb people's life advice and philosophy in a thoughtful way, considering everything from a distance and deciding what influences she wanted to have in her life. Many people found her shy and troubled, but I think she was intelligent, especially in a totally new environment.