Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fiction: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

Publisher: Algonquin
Date: 1991
Format: paperback
Acquired: borrowed
Read: for Spindale Library's Teen Book Club
Pages: 290
Reading time: one day

From GoodReads: The Garcías—Dr. Carlos (Papi), his wife Laura (Mami), and their four daughters, Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía—belong to the uppermost echelon of Spanish Caribbean society, descended from the conquistadores. Their family compound adjoins the palacio of the dictator’s daughter. So when Dr. García’s part in a coup attempt is discovered, the family must flee. They arrive in New York City in 1960 to a life far removed from their existence in the Dominican Republic. Papi has to find new patients in the Bronx. Mami, far from the compound and the family retainers, must find herself. Meanwhile, the girls try to lose themselves—by forgetting their Spanish, by straightening their hair and wearing fringed bell bottoms. For them, it is at once liberating and excruciating being caught between the old world and the new, trying to live up to their father’s version of honor while accommodating the expectations of their American boyfriends. Acclaimed writer Julia Alvarez’s brilliant and buoyant first novel sets the García girls free to tell their most intimate stories about how they came to be at home—and not at home—in America.

My review: It took me a while to get into this book - the first third, comprising one of the three chronological parts into which the novel is divided. I couldn't identify with the four now-adult García girls, and I couldn't see how this examination of Hispanic-American life led to the girls' dysfunctional marriages and occasional bouts of mental instability. But How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is told in a series of chapters, rather like short stories, that go backwards in time. Alvarez's novel seems not to trace the daughters' "loss" of their cultural identity in American society but rather retrace their pasts back to their early childhood homeland.

I found the second and third parts of the novel much more enjoyable than the first. They reminded me of a modern, ethnic version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, telling important vignettes of the daily life of a cultural subset. As with Betty Smith's earlier novel, Alvarez's stories also create an emotional pull the farther one reads. The organization of the book into almost individually cohesive short stories only adds to this effect. I believe I most enjoyed the novel for its historical details as well as those of Dominican society. I  was particularly surprised by the patriarchal society from which the Garcías emerged, while I think I would enjoy Alvarez's newer novel In the Time of the Butterflies even more because it focuses on Trujillo's 1960s dictatorship.

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