Conquistadora

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Overview

An epic novel of love, discovery, and adventure by the author of the best-selling memoir When I Was Puerto Rican.

As a young girl growing up in Spain, Ana Larragoity Cubillas is powerfully drawn to Puerto Rico by the diaries of an ancestor who traveled there with Ponce de León. And in handsome twin brothers Ramón and Inocente—both in love with Ana—she finds a way to get there. She marries Ramón, and in 1844, ...

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Overview

An epic novel of love, discovery, and adventure by the author of the best-selling memoir When I Was Puerto Rican.

As a young girl growing up in Spain, Ana Larragoity Cubillas is powerfully drawn to Puerto Rico by the diaries of an ancestor who traveled there with Ponce de León. And in handsome twin brothers Ramón and Inocente—both in love with Ana—she finds a way to get there. She marries Ramón, and in 1844, just eighteen, she travels across the ocean to a remote sugar plantation the brothers have inherited on the island.

Ana faces unrelenting heat, disease and isolation, and the dangers of the untamed countryside even as she relishes the challenge of running Hacienda los Gemelos. But when the Civil War breaks out in the United States, Ana finds her livelihood, and perhaps even her life, threatened by the very people on whose backs her wealth has been built: the hacienda’s slaves, whose richly drawn stories unfold alongside her own. And when at last Ana falls for a man who may be her destiny—a once-forbidden love—she will sacrifice nearly everything to keep hold of the land that has become her true home.

This is a sensual, riveting tale, set in a place where human passions and cruelties collide: thrilling history that has never before been brought so vividly and unforgettably to life.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In her word of mouth bestselling memoir When I Was Puerto Rican, Esmeralda Santiago wrote about growing up in two different worlds; one in rural Puerto Rico, the other in New York City. In her historical novel, Conquistadora, she writes about a character's difficult transition between two equally different realms. Even as a young girl in southwest Spain, Ana Cubillas was enthralled with the idea of Puerto Rico, which she knew mainly through the diaries of a 16th century ancestors. To achieve her dream, Ana marries a young suitor, but in this Gone With The Wind-like saga, her heart belongs mostly to her hacienda, which undergoes major changes with the advent of the American Civil War on the mainland. Early reviews call this "a sensual, riveting tale" and "thrilling history."

Library Journal
The multitalented author of When I Was Puerto Rican offers a big, bold novel about life on a Caribbean sugar plantation in the mid-19th century. Ana Cubillas, the descendant of Latin American conquistadors, is unhappy with the confined life of a young woman in Spain. She marries Ramon Argoso and encourages him and his twin, Inocente, to take over their family's plantation in Puerto Rico. So begins the saga of Ana's determination to revive the plantation in the face of all obstacles, from hurricanes to cholera epidemics to slave revolts. Is Ana an admirable example of female endurance, or does her relentless ambition only bring tragedy to her family? Can we have any sympathy for someone whose success comes from the backbreaking slavery of others? These are the questions Santiago poses in this lively, well-researched historical novel. VERDICT With drama, adventure, and even a bit of magical realism, Conquistadora may remind readers of Isabel Allende's novels of Latin America. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 1/31/11.]—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
Kirkus Reviews

Or,Gone with el Viento: a Puerto Rican–set saga of forbidden love, slavery and humidity.

Gloriosa Ana María de los Ángeles Larragoity Cubillas Nieves de Donostia is a handful, breast-fed by gypsies and spoiled by a small army of dispensable servants. Still, the Spanish lass has her sights on independence and accomplishments won by herself, in the manner of her conquistador ancestor, Don Hernán, spinner of tales concerning gold, limpid rivers, "unusual fruits that dangled from climbing vines"and other such good things to be found on the distant island of Puerto Rico. But how to get to that "world beyond her balcony"from Spain? Well, it being the 19th century and all, Ana has to choose the right man to take her there. Check: There's the obliging Ramón, who just happens to have a handsome brother—and from that starting point, Santiago turns this romance into a bodice-ripper and chest-heaver that wastes no time in getting hot and heavy. Early on, we find Ana exploring "the new sensations in her body, but [she] envisioned God frowning whenever she brushed her fingers against her budding breasts to feel the pleasure at the touch, so even her thoughts were forbidden." Soon enough, we find her entertaining both brothersin flagrante, or, better, in a steamy plantation full of steamy slaves and their sullen overseers. What's a nice girl to do? Well, wait as the menfolk start to drop dead one by one, the tropics being a dangerous place, watch as Tara South gets chewed up by termites and fruit bats and harbor a few regrets about having "committed the sins of adultery and fornication without seeking penance." Ah, but then come the steely arms of another man and the passage of years, and lo, the jungle is conquered—at least until the sequel.

A pot-boiler—competent enough, with an exotic setting and characters, but nothing special within its genre.

Gaiutra Bahadur
The book's strength is its Rubik's Cube portrait of Ana, an unconventional, ambitious woman whose attitudes toward children, slaves and lovers perplex and engross…Ana is emotionally intelligent enough to imagine how slaves might feel, to understand their longing for freedom, yet ruthless enough to use and punish them in order to flourish herself. Neither white witch nor angel, she is convincing despite her contradictions—indeed, because of them.
—The New York Times
Eugenia Zukerman
The novel's setup could have spun into a bodice ripper or a potboiler. Instead, once Ana lands in the lush and perilous island that is mid-19th-century Puerto Rico, the tempo and the virtuosic writing accelerate…Santiago's storytelling is thrilling, and her descriptions of the island and its multinational denizens are luminous. Her characters' complexities emerge and collide while the plot twists like tropical vines…Santiago's Ana is a woman with a lust for life and the drive of a conquistador. She may be flawed, but she's also fabulous, and Conquistadora is a triumph.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
“An enthralling family saga interlaced with meticulously researched details of how the Caribbean economy of the day sustained itself through slave labor. . . . Steely Ana—think Scarlett O’Hara with jet black hair—won’t let hurricanes, cholera or even outright revolution keep her from turning a profit raising [sugar] cane. Santiago uses her larger-than-life character to illuminate a pivotal moment in the history of the Western hemisphere. . . . Four stars."
—Sue Corbett, People

“Gloriosa Ana María de los Ángeles Larragoity Cubillas Nieves de Donostia—Ana for short—is slight for a Spanish aristocrat, and unfashionably dark-skinned. In convent school in the 1830s, having eccentrically buried her not-so-pretty nose in the journal of a conquistador, she decides to become one, after a fashion, herself. . . . A decades-long story about marriage, slavery, and calculated choices—Ana makes an unspoken, unnatural pact with her young husband and his twin brother—Conquistadora is a splendid expedition into colonial history complete with enrapturing suspense to the very end.”
—Celia McGee, O the Oprah Magazine 

“Remarkable . . . [An] unpredictable and soaring story [by] an author in full command . . . Santiago encapsules an island’s history in the splendid tapestry of Ana’s boldly imagined life [and] joins a stellar line-up of Latin American authors who have brought to literary life the maverick women of Spanish colonial times, most notably Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel . . . Santiago has crafted this elegantly written story from a bountiful imagination that blossomed from conversations with her parents, who grew up in and near sugar plantations; and dogged research into the most intricate details of aristocracy in Seville and colonial life in Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York. . . . Historical lessons abound, but pathos and authenticity keep one glued to the tale. . . . The indomitable Ana has been compared by early reviewers to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. [She is] the flawed but ultimately admirable woman through which Santiago narrates the complex story of a nation’s beginnings. In Santiago’s hands, Ana is a woman to remember and Puerto Rico a country to cherish.”
—Fabiola Santiago, The Miami Herald 
 
“An epic beach read . . . Santiago sets her new book in 19th-century Spain, where her young heroine, Ana Larragoity Cubillas, discovers the diaries of an ancestor who traveled with Ponce de Léon. Fascinated by tales of gold nuggets and caribe warriors, Ana makes her way to Puerto Rico with the help of handsome, devious twins—both of whom land up in her bed. Once there, Ana finds her passion running a sugar plantation where love, disease, and revolt threaten to destroy it all.”
—Kimberly Cutter, Marie Claire

“Santiago has created a ferociously seductive character. By day, headstrong Ana Cubillas is a well-heeled 19th-century Spanish teenager . . . By night, she dreams of emulating her conquistador ancestor and turning her back on ‘country, family and custom’ to make her fortune. . . . Read this absorbing, impeccably researched novel for its lusty history and for the way Santiago’s narrative constantly surprises—just as its protagonist does, confronting the gender limitations of her day.”
—Meredith Maran, More

“In 1844, a bride sails to Puerto Rico to help run her in-laws’ plantation. There, she battles heat, disease, and the cruelty of slavery—and comes out on top, defying convention at every turn.”
Good Housekeeping

“Santiago brings passion, color, and historical detail to this Puerto Rican Gone with the Wind, featuring a hard-as-nails heroine more devoted to her plantation than to any of the men in her life . . . Ana grows up the willful daughter of aristocratic parents during the waning years of Spain’s colonial era. [She is] a not-so-innocent convent girl who marries her best friend’s fiancé’s twin brother, then heads to Puerto Rico without her friend, but with both twins in tow. The young men intend to make their fortunes, but it is Ana who has the savvy and determination to persevere through hurricanes, slave revolts, cholera and any other challenge the island has to offer. . . Santiago makes Caribbean history come alive through characters as human as they are iconic. The richness of her imagination and the lushness of her language will serve saga enthusiasts well, and she provides readers a massive panorama of plantation life—plus all you could ever want to know and more about growing sugar cane.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Extraordinary . . . a historical novel set in 19th Puerto Rico, featuring a high-handed, strong-willed woman determined to escape her boring upper-class future in Spain. When twin brothers inherit a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico, Ana marries them (who can tell them apart?), and they embark on what for the brothers is a lark, but for Ana is serious business. From the start, she takes to the land and the work of processing cane in the Caribbean, keeping the slaves inherited with the property and adding to their number over the years. She becomes the very image of a conquering hero: implacable, outspoken, demanding. Her husbands languish and fade while Ana runs Hacienda los Gemelos without their help. The issues of social caste, slavery, and sex roles make this a fascinating read. It’s an outstanding story, full of pathos, tropical sensuality, and violence—but it also poses uncomfortable moral questions readers are forced to consider . . . Storytelling genius . . . Conquistadora is a book-group must.”
—Jen Baker, Booklist (starred review)

“What do you get when you drop the author of When I Was Puerto Rican into a steamy, sultry stew of 19th century island intrigue? You get Conquistadora, an imaginative re-imagining of things from a strong-willed woman’s point-of-view. You also get one helluva historical epic.”
—John Hood, NBC Miami Niteside
 
“A grand romantic adventure tale, complete with plenty of sex and violence [and] satisfying richness . . . Santiago doesn’t ignore the political and economic realities of Ana’s life. . . . The novel is loaded with details of life on a sugar plantation.”
—Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch

“The multitalented author of When I Was Puerto Rican offers a big, bold novel about life on a Caribbean sugar plantation in the mid-19th century. Ana Cubillas, the descendant of Latin American conquistadors, is unhappy with the confined life of a young woman in Spain. She marries Ramon Argoso and encourages him and his twin, Inocente, to take over their family’s plantation in Puerto Rico. So begins the saga of Ana’s determination to revive the plantation in the face of all obstacles, from hurricanes to cholera epidemics to slave revolts. Is Ana an admirable example of female endurance, or does her relentless ambition only bring tragedy to her family? Can we have any sympathy for someone whose success comes from the backbreaking slavery of others? These are the questions Santiago poses in this lively, well-researched historical novel. With drama, adventure, and even a bit of magical realism, Conquistadora may remind readers of Isabel Allende’s novels of Latin America. Highly recommended.”
—Leslie Patterson, Library Journal

“The American South had Scarlett O’Hara as its Civil War antiheroine . . . In fiction, plantation mistresses have tended to be either unbridled despots or demure creatures who stay in the Great House . . . Santiago plays with, then capsizes, these caricatures in Conquistadora, set in mid-19th-century Puerto Rico. . . . But Santiago’s plantation mistress isn’t a shrew who derives sadistic pleasure from flogging her slaves. Nor is she their ministering angel . . . Ana is something much more elusive and contradictory. She delegates the flogging, but flinches when the slaves screams. [And she] is a feminist before her time. . . . The book’s strength is its Rubik’s Cube portrait of Ana, an unconventional, ambitious woman whose attitudes toward children, slaves and lovers perplex and engross. . . . Ana is emotionally intelligent enough to imagine how slaves might feel, to understand their longing for freedom, yet ruthless enough to use and punish them in order to flourish herself. Neither white witch nor angel, she is convincing despite her contradictions—indeed, because of them. . . . Conquistadora [is] a guided tour of the history of sugar and empire. Santiago takes us through events of the past as if they were rooms, navigating the cholera epidemic that ravaged Puerto Rico in the 1850s here, depicting the secret abolitionist societies active in San Juan there, and over all, divertingly evoking a place that was one of the last holdouts for slavery in the Americas.”
—Gaiutra Bahadur, The New York Times Book Review

Conquistadora is an expertly researched novel that fuses Antillean/Puerto Rican history and a spellbinding and action-packed storyline that will surprise and dazzle its readers. . . . A Pandora’s box of triumphs and tragedies unfolds and will keep you on the edge of your seat. . . . A crown jewel of Puerto Rican literature.”
—Charlie Vázquez, Being Latino

"If, as the proverb goes, history is written by the hunters, then Esmeralda Santiago has imagined history as written from the point of view of the lions. A remarkable story for its detail, imagination, meticulous research, and wisdom, this is history written by a lion at the height of her powers."
—Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street

“An enthralling epic that not only illuminates the life of one extraordinary woman, but of the great sweep of Puerto Rican history. Rich with period details, unforgettable drama, and a riveting cast of characters, Conquistadora will seduce readers heart and soul.”
—Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuban

Conquistadora is a wonderful and richly drawn novel, with an unforgettable story that will not only enlighten readers about the fascinating history of Puerto Rico in the 19th century, but delight them with a narrative that is always deeply felt and entertaining. A grand achievement from one of our finest writers.”
—Oscar Hijuelos, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and Beautiful Maria of My Soul

“Impressive . . . Conquistadora is a story of epic dimensions, one which demands to be taken seriously—and at the same time is just a tremendous amount of fun. Hats off to Esmeralda Santiago, for a delicious novel that instructs as easily as it pleases.” 
—Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls’ Rising

“A powerful new novel that is colorful, sexy, and shimmering with magical writing as lush as the tropical island on which it takes place. Alive with all their passions and flaws, here are characters so boldly imagined they feel real, and in a story so transporting you can almost smell the sugar cane . . . I fell in love with the grand adventure that is Conquistadora—so will you!”
 
—Terry McMillan, author of Getting to Happy and Waiting to Exhale

“Having launched her writing career with the well-regarded memoir When I Was Puerto Rican, Santiago goes for broke with this grand, sprawling novel, which starts out in 19th-century Spain. Ana Cubillas, enraptured by the diaries of an ancestor who explored Puerto Rico with Ponce de León, is now in love with the island and finds a way to get there. . . . She just wasn’t prepared for the heat, the wildlife—and the slave labor. Engrossing and polished, without the let’s-just-get-through-it writing than can mar sagas . . . Perfect for those who want fun but literate reading.”
—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

“I loved this novel from the first sentence, and wept with emotion by the end. Lush, steamy and passionate, Conquistadora paints a rich landscape of life in colonial Puerto Rico, and in bold strokes defines characters so full of life they leap from the page and into your heart. Esmeralda Santiago has given voice to a history that has eluded me. Here is a haunting, visceral epic that satisfies on every level and yet leaves you hungry for more. Bravo, Conquistadora!
—Daisy Martinez, host of Viva Daisy! and author of Daisy’s Holiday Cooking

From the Hardcover edition.

Library Journal
Having launched her writing career with the well-regarded memoir When I Was Puerto Rican and her fiction career with America's Dream, Santiago goes for broke with this grand, sprawling novel, which starts out in 19th-century Spain. Ana Cubillas is enraptured by the diaries of an ancestor who explored Puerto Rico with Ponce de León. She therefore marries Ramón, who with his twin brother has inherited a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico, and convinces the brothers that their future lies in the plantation. She just wasn't prepared for the heat, the wildlife, and the slave labor. At first glance, this is engrossing and polished, without the let's-just-get-through-it writing than can mar sagas. With an eight-city tour and a reading group guide.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307268327
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/12/2011
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Esmeralda Santiago
Esmeralda Santiago is the author of the memoirs When I Was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman, which she adapted into a Peabody Award–winning film for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, and The Turkish Lover; the novel América’s Dream; and a children’s book, A Doll for Navidades. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and House & Garden, among other publications, and on NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she lives in New York.

www.esmeraldasantiago.com

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Read an Excerpt

“Her Small Person”
 
The horizon was smudged, like a bruise, but as the Antares approached land, a veiled green pyramid emerged from the haze. Ana grabbed Ramón’s arm and bounced on her toes, unable to contain her excitement.
 
“Is that it?”
 
Ramón wove her left hand through his elbow, and brought her gloved fingers to his lips. “We’ll soon be inside the harbor.”
 
“You can make out San Felipe del Morro.” Inocente pointed to a mustard-colored headland over the frothing surf.
 
“It’s huge!”
 
“Impregnable,” Inocente added. “Spanish military engineering at its best.”
 
Other passengers pushed closer to the rail, craned their necks, adjusted their hats and bonnets to shade their eyes from the blinding sun. Crewmen hopped around the deck in a dance of sail lowering, rope loosening, latch securing, and the tying down of canvas-wrapped bundles. As the vessel glided through the protected passage into the broad harbor, Ana’s breath quickened. This is it, she thought, Puerto Rico. A sense of déjà vu made her dizzy.
 
“Now I know what my ancestors must have felt,” she said, “seeing land after weeks at sea. . . .”
 
“Let’s hope we have the luck of those who became rich and not the luck of those eaten by the Caribs,” muttered Inocente.
 
Ramón and Ana laughed. Some passengers standing nearby glanced at them nervously and gave them a bit more room. The brothers exchanged an amused look over Ana’s head. She put her other arm through Inocente’s so that they were linked to each other through her. She sighed happily as the walled city came into view.
 
“At last,” she said softly. “We’re here at last.”
 
She closed her eyes and mentally etched the date into memory: Wednesday, October 16, 1844.
 
It was early morning, and the harbor was thick with two- and three-masted schooners, barges, sloops, and fishing boats vying for lanes, most of them flying the red-and-gold Spanish flag. San Juan rose from the waterfront behind the thick walls that protected it from invasions and enemy attacks from the Atlantic Ocean. Wide swatches of green peppered the hill, gardens, or pastures—Ana couldn’t tell—but closely packed buildings intersected by roads and alleys defined most of the land. Several towers topped by crucifixes were scattered across the citadel, their bells echoing over the water. To Ana, San Juan looked like Cádiz, the city they’d left three thousand miles behind in Spain.
 
She freed her arms from Ramón and Inocente and turned to where verdant hills stretched east to west, the vegetation nearly unbroken by man-made structures. Low white clouds formed over the green, blackening the land below. She turned again to the light and sunny city. As the schooner approached the dock, passengers oohed and aahed at the painted houses, the balconies adorned with flowers and foliage on the upper stories. On the fl at roofs, women’s skirts and fringed shawls fl uttered in the breeze in a panoply of color and movement. Some of them waved, and passengers returned their greetings. Other women dressed in black stood as immobile as the sentry boxes over the rock walls of the fort. They were too far from shore for Ana to distinguish features, but so many women in mourning over the gay city palled her humor. She threaded her arms again through Ramón’s, then Inocente’s, arm and pulled them closer, focusing their attention on the movement on the wharf, away from the widows.
 
“There he is!” Ramón pointed at don Eugenio standing by an open carriage near the dock, amid the bustle and hubbub around the waterfront. Next to him stood a younger man, somewhat taller, powerfully built, his face shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat. Eugenio waved when he spotted them, nodded at the younger man, and walked toward the wharf.
 
The dock was narrower than Ana expected, the boards slippery, set wide apart, and she worried her foot might get caught between them. Crowds made her nervous because she was so short that she couldn’t see over people’s heads or around the wide feminine silhouette that was the fashion of the day. Ramón and Inocente formed a barrier between her and the multitude. They steered her to avoid women’s skirts, a man carrying a heavy valise, an old man being led by a much younger woman. Five impeccably dressed children walked slowly hand in hand, taking up the width of the dock, while behind them, a toddler screeched at the top of his lungs in spite of his nurse’s efforts to comfort him. After the fresh ocean breeze on the open seas, the waterfront smelled of dead fish and pine tar, of sweat, urine, rotting wood. Ana was faint.
 
“Almost there,” Ramón said as he led her forward. She finally stepped on solid ground.
 
Bienvenidos, welcome!” don Eugenio said, kissing Ana on both cheeks. His whiskers were damp. “What a joy to have you near again!”
 
While he hugged and kissed his sons, she discreetly wiped the moisture from her cheeks with the back of her glove. From the corner of her eye she caught the bemused smile of the man don Eugenio had been talking to. She turned her back on him.
 
“This way. Your trunks will be delivered to the house.”
 
Don Eugenio helped her into the open carriage, and Ramón climbed in beside her. Inocente and don Eugenio took the facing seats. The driver, a round-faced man with the blackest skin Ana had ever seen, sat on one of the two horses, clucked his tongue, tugged and loosened the reins as he skillfully guided them through the crowd. As Ana opened her parasol, she noticed that the man who smiled at her was still standing in the same spot. He lifted his hand in a wave, and she wondered that he’d be so brazen, but then realized he was waving at don Eugenio, who acknowledged him with a nod.
 
“Who is that?” asked Inocente.
 
“His name is Severo Fuentes. He worked for Rodrigo and has been recommended as manager for the plantation. You’ll meet him later.”
 
Ana wanted to get a better look, but when she turned around, he’d vanished.
 
The street was so congested that they made little progress and beggars took advantage.
 
“Por favor, señora, una limosna,” implored a boy whose left arm ended in a stump just above the wrist.
 
“Por amor a Dios,” begged another, his narrow face peeling in strips as thin and transparent as discarded snakeskin.
 
On the other side of the carriage a woman pressed along, silently, hands cupped, huge eyes imploring.
 
Don Eugenio scattered them with his walking stick, but they followed, clamoring, while Ramón, Inocente, and Ana tried to ignore them. It was impossible, however. There were so many, and so persistent.
 
Ana reached into her reticule, and thinking she was about to hand out alms, the beggars changed their outcries. “Que Dios la bendiga, señora,” they blessed her. “Que la Santísima Virgen se lo pague, señora.” Their grateful voices brought more pleas and outstretched hands, bringing the carriage to a stop.
 
“If you give to one, they won’t leave us alone,” Inocente warned.
 
“I know that,” she said irritably. She was born in a city where dodging beggars was a skill learned from childhood. She pulled a handkerchief from the reticule and blotted her cheeks and forehead. The beggars’ cries of disappointment were followed by curses.
 
“Go away. There’s nothing for you here.” Inocente’s walking stick struck a boy on the chest, another on the shoulders. A small boy tried to climb onto the carriage.
 
Don Eugenio pushed him off. “Where are you going?”
 
A mounted soldier pressed his horse through the crowd and, in between curses and threats, moved the beggars along. They didn’t go far, though, just to the carriage behind, already mobbed.
 
“Everything all right, Colonel?” the soldier asked, saluting don Eugenio.
 
“Thank you. We’re fine now.” Don Eugenio saluted back. “Just trying to get home.”
 
The soldier cleared the road in front of them, and soon they entered the gate and were heading uphill. Don Eugenio brushed the sleeves and lapels of his white suit, even though none of the beggars had touched him. “Disgraceful! Something must be done about these people.”
 
“Every city has beggars, Papá,” said Ramón, “and orphans and lunatics. San Juan wouldn’t be a proper city without them.”
 
“You might think it’s funny, but your mother and cousin can’t leave the house without being harassed. It’s outrageous.”
 
“Why are there so many children?” asked Ana.
 
“No orphanage,” answered don Eugenio, “and for that matter, no lunatic asylum. There’s no place to put them. And the city has grown rapidly. The authorities can’t keep up.”
 
Don Eugenio continued his harangue, but Ana couldn’t concentrate. She couldn’t bear the hot, humid air. Her clothes were heavy; the seven ruffled petticoats under her fine cambric skirt weighed against her thighs. Her scalp was on fire even under her parasol and bonnet. Droplets of sweat slid down her neck and back, dampening her chemise, soaking into her corset, the stays digging into her ribs.
 
“Are you all right, querida?” asked Ramón. “You look flushed.”
 
“It’s the heat. It will take getting used to.”
 
“We’ll be home soon,” don Eugenio promised.
 
She’d never seen such bright sun, nor shadows with such finely defined edges. The contrast between light and dark was so great that her eyes watered and strained, trying to make out the shapes inside buildings and beyond alleys.
 
Even away from the harbor, pedestrians vied for space with carts, carriages, and soldiers on horseback and on foot, with servants carrying baskets full of produce or stacks of kindling on their heads. Barefoot stevedores in tattered pants and shirts moved sacks and bundles from the wharves into the wooden buildings lining the waterfront and the streets leading to it. In Sevilla there were people from all over the world, but Ana had never seen so many black men, women, and children. And even along the busy waterfronts in Sevilla and Cádiz, human beings didn’t carry such huge loads.
 
Ana had expected San Juan to be pretty. It was the capital of the island, after all, settled three hundred years earlier. It surprised her that it was so unfinished. The road they were traveling on was deeply rutted. Trenches along one side or the other ran with streams of foul-smelling black water. Ana had read that the government decreed that all houses in San Juan should be masonry, but along the city walls, an amalgam of shacks and ranchos leaned against one another, most of them built from scraps and roofed with straw or layers of palm fronds. Dogs, pigs, and goats wandered unattended, eating whatever they could scavenge from the mounds of garbage. Hens squawked, flailing their wings into short, ungainly flight to avoid the wheels of slow-moving carriages or the hooves of horses and beasts of burden. The people in the shacks were dressed in tatters, the children naked, the women in thin cotton skirts and blouses cut low on the shoulder, their unkempt hair tied up loosely or wrapped in turbans.
 
“This section of the city,” don Eugenio said, “is less well maintained, as you can see. Most of the people here are libertos. They were slaves who fought on the royalist side in the wars for independence in Spanish America, so the government allowed them to find asylum, and liberty, in Puerto Rico.”
 
“But there are whites here, too,” Ana said. “So they can’t all be libertos.
 
“Doubtless you’ve read that this island was a penal colony for centuries. Some of the men here are desterrados, exiles who chose not to or couldn’t return to Spain after serving their sentences. Others came here as soldiers and established families. Some,” don Eugenio sighed, “came to make their fortune but were seduced by the bottle, by cards, by fighting cocks.”
 
As the carriage wheeled west, the dwellings were more what Ana expected: closely set masonry houses two or three stories high with overhanging balconies and terra-cotta roof tiles. Most had businesses on the ground floor with residences upstairs, evidenced by lace curtains waving in the breeze. The only women on the streets were servants and hawkers, most of them dark complexioned.
 
The higher they climbed, the newer the houses, and the fewer the businesses on the ground floors. Just as they turned the corner from a small plaza, they stopped in front of a solid, new two-story house with carved doors. A painted tile was embedded in the masonry: Calle Paloma 9.
 
“Here we are.” Don Eugenio helped Ana from the carriage. “Take care, my dear, the stones are slippery.” This street was narrower, paved with cobblestones and raised flagstone sidewalks on either side.
 
As they entered the foyer, Ana’s eyes adjusted to the dim, cool interior. The hall led to an open courtyard shaded by blooming plants and bushes. A gurgling fountain in the center masked the street sounds. Doña Leonor was waiting at the bottom of a wide set of stairs to the left, and behind her, Elena. When their eyes met, Ana read in them Elena’s happiness and her longing.
 
A flurry of hugs, kisses, and blessings. A young, barefoot maid appeared to take their hats, gloves, Ana’s parasol, and the men’s walking sticks. Ana noticed Elena’s envious accounting of her fashionable pale green dress and lace pelerine.
 
“Take this, too,” she said to the maid, slipping the pelerine from her shoulders. She was immediately cooler. “My goodness, is it always this hot here?”
 
“The end of October marks the beginning of the dry season,” don Eugenio explained. “San Juan is known for its healthful breezes, and it’s unusual for the air to be so still this time of year.”
 
“It’s a disaster in the countryside,” doña Leonor said, snapping her fan open and leading them upstairs. “We’ve had no rain in weeks. The crops are suffering, and the cattle . . .”
 
“Come, my dear, no bad news. They’ve just arrived,” don Eugenio chided his wife.
 
“You’ve grown taller, I’m certain of it,” doña Leonor addressed her two sons as one. “And you, Ana, have filled out a bit. Your face is rounder. It’s most becoming.”
 
She led them into a parlor with tall louvered doors facing a balcony choked with potted geraniums and gardenias. The louvers were half open to cut down the sun, but fragrance weighted the air, and Ana again was assaulted by too much light, color, perfume, heat. Ramón led her to a chair away from the balcony in the cooler part of the room. She found comfort in the furnishings she recognized from the Argoso home in Cádiz by their heavy, carved wooden backs and armrests, their solid Spanishness.
 
“Your harp!” Ana exclaimed when she saw it in a corner.
 
“Yes, isn’t it lovely!” Doña Leonor looked fondly toward the instrument. “It arrived without a scratch, in spite of my fears. You can imagine how much I missed it.”
 
“She fussed and worried about it more than she worried about me!” Don Eugenio smiled.
 
Ana noticed that Elena seemed confused about where to place herself, as if the arrival of so many people had thrown off the natural balance. She settled in the chair don Eugenio held for her, next to his own. Elena kept glancing from Ramón to Inocente, bypassing Ana’s gaze between them. Finally, she looked at Ana, blushed, lowered her lids, and pressed her lips together.
 
“Will you play for us later, Mamá?” Ramón asked.
 
“Of course, hijo. I’m so happy that we’re together again.” Doña Leonor wiped her eyes. “It’s been a most difficult adjustment—”
 
“Let’s have some coffee,” don Eugenio interrupted, and Elena jumped to ring for the maid.
 
“We missed you, too, Mamá.” Ramón held his mother’s hand. “We came as soon as we could.”
 
“But you’ll be leaving again.” She looked accusingly at Ana.
 
She avoided her mother-in law’s eyes and sought those of Elena, whose expression was noncommittal. How infuriating she is, Ana thought suddenly, so humble and unassuming. She longed to upset her composure, to reveal the true, passionate Elena.
 
“We must go to the hacienda, of course,” Inocente said. “But we’ll spend a couple of months with you in San Juan. You must show us the city. I’m sure you’ve already met everyone worth knowing.”
 
“She’s unstoppable, son,” don Eugenio said. “Your mother and Elena have made many friends. They’re always visiting someone or other.”
 
“We mostly see to the sick and housebound, don’t we, Elena?”
 
“There is much charity work.”
 
“Surely you saw the beggars on your way here.”
 
The maid entered with an ornate silver tray that Ana remembered from Cádiz. She served with the alert submissiveness of a woman who’d been a servant all her life.
 
“Would you prefer something cool?” Elena asked softly when Ana hesitated before the offered coffee. Her beautiful blue eyes wouldn’t meet Ana’s.
 
“Yes,” Ana said. “Yes, I would. Water for me, please.” She knows, Ana thought, about me and Ramón and Inocente. She knows.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Santiago’s epigraph is an excerpt from “Adam” by William Carlos Williams: “Underneath the whisperings/of tropic nights/there is a darker whispering/that death invents especially/for northern men/whom the tropics/ have come to hold.” Why do you think she chose this passage?

2. How familiar were you with the history Santiago provides in the opening section of the novel—El Encuentro/The Encounter: November 19, 1493?

3. Santiago’s first book was the best-selling memoir When I Was Puerto Rican, which told an entirely different sort of history: that of her own journey from Puerto Rico to the United States. Yet Conquistadora also makes the personal historical. How do fact and fiction play off each other in this story? How is reading historical fiction different from reading a nonfiction historical account of a time period?

4. As the book begins, how do you feel about Ana? Is she a likable character? What one word would you use to describe her?

5. What draws Ana to Puerto Rico? What opportunities exist for her there—as a woman of a certain class, a señorita de buena familia—that weren’t available in Spain? What about Severo? What brings him to Puerto Rico, and what is he able to accomplish there that might have been impossible in Spain?

6. How does Ana’s attitude toward slavery, and her own slaves, change over the course of the novel? How does she change in general and why?

7. Discuss Ana’s relationship with Elena. What draws these women together—and what drives them apart? How do their motivations for getting married differ?

8. Why do you think Ana agrees to sleep with both Ramón and Inocente? Does she have a choice in the matter?

9. On page 73, Ana considers a phrase: “We are all a bit of a poet, a bit of a musician, a bit mad, she agreed. But she thought that Severo Fuentes, who could quote Cervantes with uncanny precision, was perhaps the maddest of them all.” Do you agree with Ana about Severo? Why or why not? How are “madness” and a sense of mission linked for Severo, and for Ana?

10. Why does Los Gemelos become so important to Ana? Why won’t she leave—and why would she be willing to go so far as to trade her son for the plantation? Did you understand her motivation for this? Why or why not?

11. Why does Ana refer to her slaves as “nuestra gente” (“our people”)?

12. Discuss the characters of Conciencia and Meri and their relationships with Ana. How does Conciencia function as a conscience for Ana? Why does Ana feel that she must save Meri from her burns? And why do you think Ana is able to act maternally toward her slaves in some ways, but is unable to be a mother to her own son?

13. Why does Severo want Ana as his wife, although it is Consuelo who makes him happy? Do you think he can love these two women at once?

14. What is the significance of the house Severo builds for Ana? Why does he name it El Destino? 

15. On page 319, Santiago tells us that, three generations later, Miguel’s paintings would wind up stored in a warehouse and forgotten. How do you think this connects to the larger story of Puerto Rican history, and Ana’s endeavors at Hacienda los Gemelos?

16. Discuss Miguel’s fate. What do you think he would have said to Ana, had he had the chance?

17. As the novel ends, the American Civil War has already begun to change life in Puerto Rico—perhaps especially for the hacienda’s slaves, who are inspired by “el libertador Abrámlincon.” How is the history of slavery in Puerto Rico similar to, or different from, the history of slavery in America? What surprised you most about Santiago’s depiction of the slaves’ daily lives?  

18. How does Conquistadora compare to other postcolonial literature you’ve read—stories that take place in Africa, Asia, and the Americas?

19. Does Ana earn the designation conquistadora? If she were alive today, what do you think she would do for a living?

20. What do you think lies ahead for Ana and Severo? What about Segundo, who will inherit their land and the hacienda? And the slaves at the hacienda?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 162 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(57)

4 Star

(40)

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(33)

2 Star

(20)

1 Star

(12)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 162 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 23, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Well written and very insightful,

    In Spain, Ana Cubillas dreams of living in Puerto Rico after reading the diaries of her sixteenth century ancestor who accompanied de Leon in the New World. Ana finds a means to cross the Atlantic when she meets twins Ramón and Inocente who inherit jointly a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico. The brothers fall in love with her, but she marries Ramon in 1844. Soon afterward, she persuades the siblings the good life is at their Hacienda Los Gemelos plantation.

    However, the island is not the tropical paradise of her dreams. As the American ideological divide heats up and threatens to boil into the Caribbean, she finds the oppressive heat unbearable and the feral land just outside the hacienda dangerously unwelcoming. Finally Ana is disturbed by the slave labor employed on her Hacienda. Still a romantic at heart, she sacrifices everything for her first and only love Hacienda Los Gemelos.

    The underlying theme of this super mainstream story is similar to Esmeralda Santiago's autobiography When I Was Puerto Rican, which focused on having a foot on the island and one in NYC; this enjoyable tale likewise has a foot in real Puerto Rico and whimsically in Ana's romanticized Puerto Rico. Well written and very insightful, readers will relish this engaging mid ninetieth century look at Puerto Rico (and initially Spain).

    Harriet Klausner

    16 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2011

    I really enjoyed this

    It is a longer story, a plus as far as I'm concerned, (400+/- book pages: 2.5 nook pages per book page.) that is very well thought out. It is not suspensful, as clear foreshadowing allows you to forecast upcoming events, but it is entertaining.

    I kept thinking that I would love to see this as a movie.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 27, 2011

    Left me wanting more...

    Conquistadora would be great for book club discussions, particularly for people who know and appreciate Puerto Rico and its history. It's a quick and interesting read.

    The only negative for me was the sexual content, which sensationalized the characters but took away from the important history being conveyed.

    Nevertheless, I look forward to Esmeralda Santiago's sequel to this historical novel.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2011

    Great read!

    Ana was a true Conquistadora...at all cost. I loved her unforgiven agenda, ambition, tenecity. I found myself routing for her and greatly disliking her in-laws and the society/culture that defined them. But by the end of the book I found my emotions turned upside down, as Ana's selfishness took over her life and mine as I could not turn the pages fast enough. Santiago played with those emotions just like Ana contolled the lives at Hacienda los Gemelos. Many of the cultural idiosycracies described in the book about men, women, and their environment are still visible in 2011 Puerto Rico. A true work of art!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 25, 2011

    Wonderful

    I loved this book. The strength of women against a harsh environment and the success of an individual. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves historical fiction.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 1, 2012

    Page-turning

    In some ways predictable, but nonetheless enjoyable, this is a sweeping "emigrating to the new world" saga of a woman pursuing her dream (sometimes for, some times in spite of her loved ones... reminiscent of Scarlett O'Hara)

    While I wouldn't qualify this as an icon of literature, and the author made some odd choices, it was still a very enjoyable escapist novel, that swept me up in the story and characters, and kept me lost in its world until the last page, which left me scope to imagine how the story might continue... Especially as I read much of it overlooking the same warm Caribbean waters and similar fields of sugar cane in which the bulk of the novel is set.

    Well worth a read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 2, 2012

    I couldn't put this one down

    I really, really enjoyed this book. I did not expect to like it as much as I did. On my Nook, this was 415 pages and I enjoyed each page. The writing was really good and the story was very interesting. Each character was so interesting. There was much to admire in the book's characters but also much to depise. This would be a perfect book club book becaue after finishing reading it I can just imagine the differences in opinions that readers would have about each of the characters. Besides being a great story this book touched so many issues such as social class, slavery, the role of a woman, infidelity, etc. I highly recommend this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2012

    Exceeds expectations...

    This novel, although different from cannon latino-lit, embodies struggle, the spirit of perseverence, a question of identity, feminism, and magical realism. It is compared to Gone With The Wind... but is quite different. As in much of her work, the author is amazingly descriptive of the natural beauty an hardship of la isla. The protagonist is, much like Scarlet, meant to be both admired and dispised. The comentary on Puerto Rican slavery and other politics of the time-period is well-done. Many of the characters are interesting, but I admire her use of language more than anything. I would deffinately recomend reading this, I certianly plan on reading it in Spanish soon myself.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2012

    I enjoyed this Powerful

    Could not put this book down

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2012

    I have a Love/Hate Relationship with the Book

    Very well-written, exciting page-turner. I have a love/hate relationship with almost every character. Santiago does a great job demostrating the good and evil within each of the characters, allowing you to admire them for certain attributes and despise them for others.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2012

    Conquistadora me conquisto

    Intersting story which brings you through the development of the lovely isla del encanto

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2011

    No

    In spanish

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2011

    Highly recommended

    I chose this book based on reviews I saw here as well as a recent magazine book review. I very much enjoyed learning about the culture and history of Puerto Rico as well as well as following the trials, tragedies and triumphs of a young girl into her womanhood, making unpopular choices and following her dream. I look forward to reading other books, especially a sequel to this book, by this author.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2011

    Very good read!

    I really enjoyed this book. As a Puerto Rican women it made me embrace more my culture and my ancestry. A must read for every Puertorican daughter. It made me want to know more about my family tree. Called my 90 year old grandmother, and talked about her life experiences , while growing up the island of Puerto Rico. This was priceless ! Wish there were more book choices available in the Nook from Esmeralda Santiago and Isabel Allende.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2014

    Highly recommended.

    Highly recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2012

    Enjoyed

    A good read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2012

    WORSt Book ever

    Gffggxf%-/ hcvghtkxyctbr

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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