Here's a newish angle on an old theme: a fictional biography of a person you'll probably never want to meet. Yolanda Garcia (Yo for short) is charming, soulful, a bit of a screwball. Her folks and her sisters - plus assorted aunts and uncles back in the Dominican Republic where she was born - adore her. But the grownup American Yo is an irritant, a born loudmouth and fibber whose specialty is getting other people into trouble. In other words, she's a writer, one of those people who, as Joan Didion said, is "always selling somebody short."
You don't have to share Yo's literary ambitions to understand her witchy charm. Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In The Time of the Butterflies, has a nearly irresistible way of portraying her poet-subject. Each chapter of this book is told from a different person's point of view, as if they all sat down with a tape recorder after a couple of drinks and uncorked their hidden agitations. Yo's mother, her frou-frou cousin Lucinda, the caretakers at Yo's old family place in the D.R. and a number of interested men are invited to spill the beans. Even her crazy stalker, a man she doesn't know, gets to have his say. They all believe she's selfish, yet undoubtedly trusting and kind. When Yo's (very personal) books get popular, though, these same people find themselves naked to the world, and they hate it. Still, they forgive her, because Yo has a knack for reconnecting people to the parts of themselves they've forgotten. She might even have the same effect on you.
Alvarez's style is blunt, but so light and eager it's absolutely captivating. Her eye for psychological detail can move the heart. And she's funny, too. Just one snag: Is writing such a sacred calling that it justifies Yo's casual destructiveness? At this book's least convincing moments, Alvarez comes close to saying yes. It's when she lets you consider her subject as a small, disobedient planet in the human galaxy that Yo! sheds the most light. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The opening chapter of Alvarez's splendid sequel to her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, is so exuberant and funny, delivered in such rattle-and-snap dialogue, that readers will think they are in for a romp. It is narrated by Sandi, one of the four Garcia sisters whom we encounter again three decades after they emigrated to the States from the political dictatorship of the Dominican Republic. As will all the other narrators in this richly textured narrative, Sandi focuses on her sister Yolanda, "Yo,'' the object of much bitterness and resentment in the family since she has begun to use their lives as material for the books she writes. In the succeeding sections, we flash back to Yo's first years in America, her school and college days, when she exuded pizzazz and potential as a brilliant, if capricious, student obviously destined for a spectacular career. Slowly the canvas darkens, as various people in her life (a cousin on "the island,'' the daughter of the family's maid, a college professor who is her mentor) create a composite picture of a clever, impetuous, initially strong-willed-but progressively self-doubting and insecure-woman who has lost her early promise. Instead of achieving emotional and professional fulfillment, at 33 Yo is lonely, unfocused, twice divorced, childless and still searching for her identity. Then come several surprising plot twists that leave Yo free to find her destiny. In addition to revealing the details of Yo's complicated life, the 15 chapters are also fully nuanced portraits of their quite varied narrators, whose own experiences range from adventurous to quietly heart-wrenching. Alvarez's's command of Latino voices has always been impeccable, but here she is equally adept at conveying the personalities of a geographically diverse group of Americans as well: an obese woman abused by her blue-collar husband, an ex-football player and an aging Southern hippy, among others. But it is Yo, rocketing among lovers, husbands, self-doubts, shortlived enthusiasms, dead-end jobs and the first tentative satisfactions of a career, whom we get to know obliquely but fully as she belatedly finds the center of her existence. Though her sisters have become fully Americanized, Yo has been the victim of cultural dislocation and of a submerged childhood memory revealed only in the last chapter; she has become a stranger to herself. Alvarez's canny, often tart-tongued appraisals of two contrasting cultures, her inspired excursions into the hearts of her vividly realized characters, are a triumph of imaginative virtuosity. This is an entrancing novel, at once an evocation of a complex heroine and a wise and compassionate view of life's vicissitudes and the chances for redemption.
Fans of Alvarez's debut, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (LJ 5/1/91), should be particularly interested in this intricately constructed, vivid new novel, but familiarity with the earlier book is no prerequisite for enjoyment. Brief episodes, each with a different narrator, coalesce into a portrait of Yolanda -- driven writer, blithe philanthropist -- the feistiest and most perplexing of the Garcia sisters. Yo's parents, a cousin, a husband, a landlady, servants, even a stalker contribute views of Yo's life from childhood to middle age in the Dominican Republic, New York City, and New England. These memorable, deeply interrelated short pieces introduce many alluring vignettes for the one story they combineuneasily and ingeniouslyto complete. The whole is as frustrating as it is satisfying but has much to recommend it: singular, well-realized characters; luminescent moments of story; Alvarez's artistry and poise. A fine addition for any fiction collection.Janet Ingraham, Worthington P.L., Ohio
School Library Journal
YA-Yolanda Garcia, the creative third sister from the popular How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Algonquin, 1991), is the central character in this novel approach to fiction. Never monopolizing any one chapter, Yo is central to all of them. In 16 different stories, each titled with a literary genre or concept, her personality and talent emerge and develop through the viewpoints of those around her. Yo has been a teller of stories from her earliest years. She flits from an aborted academic career to working with prisoners, senior citizens, and children and finally to becoming a writer. She reaches out to those around her and touches them in subtle ways. Her culture and personality are intertwined. The family's Dominican roots surface through the stories told by Yo's mother, father, cousin, and the maid's daughter while the caretakers and farmer living in the Dominican Republic link Yo's past with her future and its immutable tie to her heritage. Alvarez draws sharp contrasts between cultures, economic status, and mythical beliefs in America and on the island. The underlying theme of the value of storytellers to a family's history is the final resolution in this well-crafted, entertaining, and provocative book.Dottie Kraft, formerly at Fairfax County Public Schools, VA
The devilish Garcia girls are back, in a warm, complex, rich and colorful third novel (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, 1991; In the Time of the Butterflies, 1994).
The focus is once again on the character of Yo, the oldest and seemingly boldest of the four little girls transplanted from the Dominican Republic to New York in the 1950s, when the upper-class Dominican Garcias fled their home to escape Trujillo's bloody reign. Yo, destined to become an autobiographical poet and novelist, is in trouble with her family when this latest novel begins for having published family secretswriting about their mother's sneaky methods of scaring her young girls into obeying her, for example, and of their father's enjoyment of skiing naked. But, then, Yo's always been in trouble for telling the truth: When Trujillo was at his most treacherous, Yo's mother remembers, the seven-year-old girl discovered a gun in her father's closet and told a neighbor, a bishop loyal to the government. That led to the family's emigration. This time out the people that Yo, now in her mid-40s and a famous writer, has written about get to tell their side of the story. Her sisters, mother, old-fashioned, gallant father, ex-boyfriends, former professors, best friends, childhood nanny, and Dominican cousinsall remember and reflect on the kind, headstrong, superstitious, needy, fearful, or impulsive Yo they've known at various ages and stages of her life. The voices of Yo's family and friends are magical, and the details of lifefirst in Dominica, where the Garcias' wealth and social standing made daily life even under the dictatorship seem luxurious and safe, and then inthe hard years in New Yorkare fascinating, though the stories told here are sometimes puzzling and contradictory. Still, the writing, as always, is animated and wonderfully imaginative; the characters jump off the page.
A must-read for Alvarez's many fans.