I have wanted to read this for so long! There’re so many books I say that about, but this is one I knew right away I wanted to read. I think the only Dominican author I’ve read is Julia Alvarez (In the Time of the Butterflies) and while I thought it was amazing, it was also years ago. Oh! And how can I forget Elizabeth Acevedo?! Both The Poet X and With the Fire On High are phenomenal! Also, I have truly have enjoyed all the Women’s Prize books I’ve read over the years, so being on the shortlist for that definitely just increased my interest. I had to wait extra time to get the audiobook from the library, since they’re all closed to borrowing physical books right now, but it was worth the wait.
“Their anger makes me nervous, but I understand it. To be angry, and not have the power to control your life. To not feel safe. To depend on a person who reminds you how they can hurt you, even kill you, at their whim. I understand.”
When Ana Canción is just fifteen, she marries Juan Ruiz, a man twice her age and whom she has no feelings for, because he offers to take her to America…and with that, there is a promise that the rest of her family can follow one day. Juan takes Ana to 1960s NYC, where, with no friends, no true family and no language, Ana is forced to spend all her days alone in their small apartment in Washington Heights. Juan fails to follow through on most of his promises, like allowing her to go to school or sending money back to her family, and as time goes his violence and her loneliness lead her to try to escape back to the Dominican Republic. But Juan’s brother, Cesar, convinces her to stay. And when Juan returns to the DR for “business” in the face of the political turmoil there, Ana finally has a chance to get out, explore the city, learn English, make some money of her own, and find a relationship that makes her happier… But with the promise of Juan’s return on the horizon Ana faces yet another decision between her own happiness and her family’s stability.
I’m going to start with the basic things. I thoroughly enjoyed reading (listening to) this book. The story itself was fantastic. Ana was such a compelling character to follow. She was so young, so cut off, so strongly pushed into situations that were against her own wants/needs/health for cultural and familial reasons that are completely out of her control. But watching her grow into her own, despite and through the way being powerless and unable to communicate affected her so strongly, was wonderful and inspiring. The story left me full of hope and expectation for her future, that I hope she was (will be?) able to fully experience. I liked that the main characters other than Ana (because of course she was fleshed-out, as our protagonist), especially Juan and Cesar, but also Ana’s mother, at the end, were…fluid. They were presented with legitimate complexities, neither all good nor all bad, and were allowed to change as they underwent experiences that would, for anyone, cause changes. I don’t always see that kind of completeness in the flaws and abilities to change of humanity shown in books. And while some, like Juan’s violence, aren’t and shouldn’t be forgivable, there are others like Ana’s mother’s judgement and Cesar’s many women, that have a lot more grey-ness to them under the circumstances. Anyways, the point is, I appreciated the nuances in who they were as people. The writing itself was very solid, nothing spectacular, but it brought me through the story with good pacing, solid dialogue and overall smoothness. There were a couple devices that were used, like the letters, the “husband/wife” tv-show-like scene-setting sections, and the animal references, that came across a little weirdly. Maybe that was because I was listening and couldn’t see how they were presented stylistically in the physical book, but even if not, they were never enough to pull me out of the story, they were just a little strange sometimes.
There were a number of recognizable themes in this novel as in many novels of the immigrant experience, but the primary one being that America is seen as a proverbial “land of plenty” where anyone with a work ethic can achieve big things. But the reality, in general and especially for those with darker skin and/or without documentation, is that that is an empty promise. A myth that is thrown into even starker relief now than if I had read this months ago. (And that is my privilege speaking loudly, I know; privilege I’m working to better recognize and leverage.) But we see, with Ana arriving in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, that her experiences mirror today’s, still: the overt and structural racism, police brutality, the need for protests and riots to incite change, and more. Reading this against the backdrop of the terribly necessary groundswell of the #blacklivesmatter movement in the US and, now, also internationally, was really an important experience. I do not read too much set in the 1960s, so this is a time period I have only “learned about” in history classes…which I haven’t taken since high school and, for many reasons, cannot be trusted to have given me the full picture (which I have learned again and again in my reading). But anyways, seeing the Civil Rights Movement and experiences of the time period from Ana’s perspective (that of a newcomer to the country who didn’t fully know what was going on, but nonetheless experienced it, as an Afro-Latinx person) was a new experience for me, which as I’ve repeatedly said, is a part of reading that I absolutely love. In addition to that, it’s a perspective that for many reasons, of language and “legality,” is silenced. And finally, this book is (yet another) example of white-washed history, news, and over-stepped international involvement. I got even more social justice and voicing-the-voiceless story-telling than I was expecting from this novel and I loved that.
I am walking away from this book wanting Ana’s potential to be able to have been fully recognized in the US. And while she’s fictional, so of course I’ll never know, there are so many similar real-life examples of how it wouldn’t have been. And reading Ana’s hopefulness and continued big dreams for her future, even against all the odds (those she knew of and those she couldn’t have imagined), just deepened the deep ache I had as a reader when I was done. It’s a unique mix of hope and sorrow that I don’t know fully how to describe, but is very affecting.
Listening to the author’s interview with the narrator at the end, I want to just add a few notes. First, I love that this was based on the author’s mother’s story – what a heart-filling tribute. In addition, her thoughts on literature as a force for social change, by opening minds to other perspectives and increasing empathy, is so important. I have long felt that reading is an antidote for many forms of ignorance, not just that of literal facts/information. I know it has been for me personally. Every book I read adds something… This interview, and hearing Cruz talk about how the ability to fall in love is a privilege, struck me deeply. It’s the first time I’ve considered that as a concept and it’s heartbreaking. So yes – the unique perspective of this book is definitely one that will, I feel, help open minds to social change through literature.