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Song of the Water Saints: A Novel
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Song of the Water Saints: A Novel

3.0 5
by Nelly Rosario

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This vibrant, provocative début novel explores the dreams and struggles of three generations of Dominican women. Graciela, born on the outskirts of Santo Domingo at the turn of the century, is a headstrong adventuress who comes of age during the U.S. occupation. Too poor to travel beyond her imagination, she is frustrated by the monotony of her life, which erodes


This vibrant, provocative début novel explores the dreams and struggles of three generations of Dominican women. Graciela, born on the outskirts of Santo Domingo at the turn of the century, is a headstrong adventuress who comes of age during the U.S. occupation. Too poor to travel beyond her imagination, she is frustrated by the monotony of her life, which erodes her love affairs and her relationship with Mercedes, her daughter. Mercedes, abandoned by Graciela at thirteen, turns to religion for solace and, after managing to keep a shop alive during the Trujillo dictatorship, emigrates to New York with her husband and granddaughter, Leila. Leila inherits her great-grandmother Graciela’s passion-driven recklessness. But, caught as she is between cultures, her freedom arrives with its own set of obligations and dangers.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Nelly Rosario's debut novel stands out . . . for its joyously profane wit and plainspoken, unforced poetry."--San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] transporting tale . . . vigorous, evocative prose...” –The Miami Herald

“Written in spare, penetrating language...exuberantly paced, sexy...” –The Village Voice

"Like Julia Alvarez's [first] novel, Song of the Water Saints explores what families pass down, and what they toss aside." –The Denver Post

"Rosario's writing is lively and rich with emotion throughout .... it is impossible not to be moved."—The Washington Post Book World

“An electrifying debut. Powerfully written, meticulously imagined, and arresting to its core, Nelly Rosario’s novel is a flame for the mind and heart, the sort you are endlessly grateful for.” –Junot Díaz, author of Drown

“Effortlessly intermingles three generations of women, dropping unadorned dialogue amid spare and lovely prose.” –Entertainment Weekly

“Rosario does an excellent job conjuring the colorful, vibrant scenes of Caribbean life.” –Los Angeles Times

“Every small scene that Nelly Rosario writes reaches toward a larger truth out in the world, and also a smaller, more intimate truth. . . . There is a physicality in the language that speaks of an angry, human spirituality and the struggle to be alive.” –The Oregonian

“Lush and assured . . . each brief chapter reads like a snapshot of a soul.” –Time Out New York

“Like a Caribbean Scheherazade, Rosario casts a spell on her readers with this saga of three generations of Dominican women whose yearning becomes our own. What they want and what we get reading Song of the Water Saints is a sense of luminous world, complex and layered, full of passion and adventure.” –Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies

“Rosario’s dialogue deftly approximates the rhythm of Dominican Spanish. . . . The effect are, by turns, bawdy and hilarious, a kind of verbal jousting.” –Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A gorgeous first novel, epic and poetic.” –Edwidge Danticat, author of Breath, Eyes, Memory

“Poetic without being flowery and overstated . . . raw realism and strong character portrayal.” –Mosaic

“A richly textured novel, in which gleaming, perfectly sketched images are vividly juxtaposed with gritty reality.” –Dominican Times

Publishers Weekly
Four generations of Dominican woman are poetically evoked in this impressively assured first novel. The vibrant, superstitious culture of the Dominican Republic enlivens a tale that favors style over plot. As a restless young woman, Graciela is photographed in a compromising position with her first love by a yanqui man; though she marries the boy, Silvio, he never quite commits to her and, after he dies barely two years later, she never really gets over him. Her new man, Casimiro steady and a good father to her difficult daughter, Mercedes still cannot tame her. Her restlessness makes Graciela leave her little family; guilt and loneliness cause her to return after six weeks, but with a problem that ultimately ends her life. Teenaged Mercedes takes over the local grocery and marries Andres, a green-eyed dwarf. Decades fly by, and Mercedes and Andres follow the dream of a better life in the U.S. with their son and granddaughter. Though the language is gorgeous and the setting vividly rendered, the story suffers from a lack of direction and, after Graciela's death, character development is all but abandoned in the rushed final third of the book. The complex politics of the island are addressed, but only perfunctorily. Rosario has the potential to become a major novelist; she's one to watch, and this work is worthwhile for the voluptuous images alone. (Mar.) Forecast: Junot D!az, Cristina Garcia, Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat supply blurbs, and Rosario was named a Village Voice "Writer on the Verge." All of that will help sales, along with national print and radio features and a six-city author tour. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Telling the story of four generations of women born in the Dominican Republic, this novel shows how time and place affect each woman and how their innate character is passed from generation to generation. Graciela is born on the edge of Santo Domingo at the turn of the century. Her world is very limited and her desire to travel is never fulfilled. Her frustrations sour her relationship with her daughter Mercedes, whom she leaves when she is 13. Mercedes finds happiness with a dwarf and has two children. She would have lived forever in her small town, but her son's ambitions force her and her husband and granddaughter to move to New York, leaving her daughter in the Dominican Republic. Her granddaughter lives between American culture and the imported Dominican culture and her grandparents are unable to help her find her own way into the 21st century. Like her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she grows up too fast, but she too is a survivor. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 246p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Nola Theiss
Library Journal
In her debut novel, Rosario tells the story of four generations of women in the Dominican Republic within the context of nearly a century of that country's history. It begins with 12-year-old Graciela, who is madly in love with the slightly older Silvio during the early years of what is described as a brutal American occupation, and ends with her 12-year-old great-granddaughter, who lives in New York City and is facing many of the same conflicts that Graciela did. Graciela's child, grandchildren, and great-grandchild adapt to the changing political situations of their country and seek to bring order and meaning to their lives in their own ways. Each woman is baffled by her child, and each child rebels against what she sees as the excesses of her parent. Named a Writer on the Verge by the Voice Literary Supplement, Rosario gracefully depicts a living and breathing community of individuals who work hard and fight to endure, who offer support and sympathy but also seek to undermine and destroy one another. In this absorbing tale, Rosario suggests that despite the suffocating effects of a harsh and bitter reality, love and hope can survive and perhaps thrive. Highly recommended for large public and all academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/01.] Rebecca Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs., IA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Effervescent debut about the lives of three women in a Dominican family. Using a triptych structure, Rosario first presents Graciela, a teenaged beauty living early in the century. She's deep in love with the flighty Silvio but can't seem to hold on to him. A sailor, Silvio comes home less and less, eventually disappearing altogether after the birth of the couple's daughter, Mercedes. The more loving but still flaky Casimiro comes into Graciela's life soon after, and the three make a rough family of sorts, worrying about food and money and avoiding the occupying US Marines, who occasionally go on violent rampages. Graciela finds her eyes turning to the outside world and goes on occasional sabbaticals, risky for a young woman alone, and it isn't clear whether she's trying to rediscover or simply debase herself. Casimiro always welcomes her back, but daughter Mercedes, whose story follows, never fully trusts her mother. Industrious and serious, Mercedes devotes her life to her husband, Andres, in running the local grocery. Shoehorned in at the end is the slim tale of young Leila, born to Mercedes' daughter Amalfi, being raised by Mercedes and Andres in New York, where they moved in the 1980s. Graciela's long first section is packed with unromantic yet magical imagery and an almost overwhelming sense of the island's humid fecundity; wandering and confused, her eyes permanently on the horizon, Graciela could have sustained the entire story, and her spirit hangs over every page after her death. In contrast, the years fly by for Mercedes, and Leila gets only a few slim anecdotes to her teenage self. Some jarring structural shifts aside, an engaging and memorable first from a passionate youngtalent. Author tour

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description:
First Vintage Contemporaries Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Invasions - 1916


Graciela and Silvio stood hand in hand on El Malecón, sea breeze polishing their faces. Silvio hurled stones out to the waves and Graciela bunched up her skirt to search for more pebbles. Her knees were ashy and she wore her spongy hair in four knots. A rusty lard can filled with pigeon peas, label long worn from trips to the market, was by her feet. Silvio's straw hat was in Graciela's hands, and quickly, she turned to toss it to the water. The hat fluttered like a hungry seagull, then was lapped up by foam. Silvio's kiss pinned Graciela against the railing.

It was a hazy day. The hot kissing made Graciela squint against the silver light. Beyond her lashes, Silvio was a sepia prince.

–That yanqui over there's lookin' at us, he murmured into Graciela's mouth. He pulled out his hand from the rip in her skirt. Graciela turned to see a pink man standing a few yards away from them. She noticed that the yanqui wore a hat and a vest–he surely did not seem to be a Marine. When she was with Silvio, Graciela forgot to worry about anyone telling on her to Mai and Pai, much less panic over yanquis and their Marine boots scraping the cobblestones of the Colonial Quarter.

Passion burned stronger than fear. Graciela turned back to Silvio.

–Forget him. Her pelvis dug into his until she felt iron.

Graciela and Silvio were too lost in their tangle of tongues to care that a few yards away, the yanqui was glad for a brief break from the brutal sun that tormented his skin. With her tongue tracing Silvio's neck, Graciela couldn't care less that Theodore Roosevelt's "soft voice and big stick" on Latin America had dipped the yanqui the furthest south he had ever been from New York City. Silvio's hands crawled back into the rip in Graciela's skirt; she would not blush if she learned that the yanqui spying on them had already photographed the Marines stationed on her side of the island, who were there to "order and pacify," in all their debauchery; that dozens of her fellow Dominicans somberly populated the yanqui's photo negatives; and that the lush Dominican landscape had left marks on the legs of his tripod. Of no interest to a moaning Graciela were the picaresque postcard views that the yanqui planned on selling in New York and, he hoped, in France and Germany. And having always been poor and anonymous herself, Graciela would certainly not pity the yanqui because his still lifes, nature shots, images of battleships for the newspapers had not won him big money or recognition.

–Forget the goddamned yanqui, I said. Graciela squeezed Silvio's arm when his lips broke suction with hers.

–He's comin' over here, Silvio said. He turned away from Graciela to hide his erection against the seawall. Graciela watched the man approach them. He had a slight limp. Up close, she could see that his skin was indeed pink and his hair was a deep shade of orange. Graciela had never seen a real yanqui up close. She smiled and folded her skirt so that the rip disappeared.

The man pulled a handkerchief from his vest pocket and wiped his neck. He cleared his throat and held out his right hand, first to Silvio, then to Graciela. His handshake swallowed up Graciela's wrist, but she shook just as hard. In cornhashed Spanish the man introduced himself: Peter West, he was.

Peter. Silvio. Graciela. They were all happy to meet each other. The man leaned against the seawall and pulled out a wad of pesos from a pocket in his outer jacket. His eyes never left Graciela and Silvio.

–¿So, are you with the Marines? Silvio asked in an octave lower than usual, and Graciela had to smile secretly because her sepia prince was not yet old enough to wear long pants.

The yanqui shook his head.

–No, no, he said with an air of importance. His thumb and index finger formed a circle around his right eye. Graciela looked over at Silvio. They wrinkled their noses. Then more cornhashed Spanish.

With the help of a Galician vendor, Peter West explained, he had accumulated an especially piquant series of photographs: brothel quadroons bathed in feathers, a Negro chambermaid naked to the waist, and, of course, he remembered with the silliest grin Graciela had ever seen, the drunken sailors with the sow. In fact, the sun was not so mean to him when he wore his hat and jacket. And fruit was sweet, whores were cheap.

Graciela reached for the pesos before Silvio did; after all, Peter West had thrust them in her direction when he finished his convoluted explanations. But he quickly pulled the pesos away, leaving Graciela's fingers splayed open.

With the promise of pesos, Graciela and Silvio found themselves in the Galician vendor's warehouse, where Peter West had staged many ribald acts among its sacks of rice. How happy they had been to help this yanqui-man push together the papier-mâché trees, to roll out the starched canvas of cracked land and sky. Silvio straddled the tiger with its frozen growl while Graciela pried open the legs of a broken tripod to look in its middle. When West lit the lamps Graciela and Silvio squealed.

–¡Look, look how he brought the sun in here!

Silvio shaded his eyes.

–This yanqui-man, he is a crazy.

Graciela's whisper rippled through the warehouse when the fantasy soured. The pink hand tugged at her skirt and pointed briskly to Silvio's pants. They turned to each other as the same hand dangled pesos before them.

–¿You still want to go away with me, Mami, or no?

Silvio's whisper was hoarse.

Graciela's shoulders dropped. She unlaced her hair and folded her blouse and skirt. In turn, Silvio unbuttoned his mandarin shirt and untied the rope at his waist. Graciela folded her clothes along with his over a pile of cornhusks. In the dampness, they shivered while West kneaded their bodies as if molding stubborn clay.

They struggled to mimic his pouts and sleepy eyes. Instead of wrestling under heavy trees by Rio Ozama, or chewing cane in the fields near bateyes, or scratching each other's bellies in abandoned mills, or pressing up against the foot of a bridge, they were twisted about on a hard couch that stunk of old rags. Bewildered, they cocked their necks for minutes at a time in a sun more barbarous than the one outside. Their bodies shone like waxed fruit, so West wiped them with white powder. Too light. So he used, instead, mud from the previous day's rain.

"Like this, you idiots."

Where his Spanish failed, West made monkey faces, which finally made Graciela titter–only to reveal gaps where her teeth had been knocked out in a fall from a cashew tree. She found it difficult to sweetly gaze up at the beams of the warehouse as he had instructed. Her eyes remained fixed on the camera.

Then Graciela and Silvio watched in complicit silence as West approached the couch and knelt in front of them. Graciela's leg prickled with the heat of his ragged breathing. One by one, West's fingers wrapped around Silvio's growing penis. He wedged the thumb of his other hand into the humid mound between Graciela's thighs. Neither moved while they watched his forehead glitter. And just as they could hear each other's own sucks of breath, they felt piercing slaps on their chins. West ran to the camera to capture the fire in their faces.

As promised, the yanqui-man tossed Silvio a flurry of pesos. Graciela rubbed caked mud from her arms while Silvio, still naked, wet his fingers to count the bills. Graciela wondered if he would hog up the money, then go off to porches and storefronts to resoak her name in mud. As she wiggled her toes into her sandals, cigar smoke made her bite the inside of her cheek.

–Me amur, ¿qué pase?

This time the knotted Spanish was in Graciela's hair, the grip on her shoulder moist. Before she could demand her own flurry of colored bills, a crash echoed throughout the warehouse. Glass and metal scattered across the floor. The photographer ran toward the crash and in his frenetic efforts to salvage the film plate did not bother to strangle Silvio.

Graciela and Silvio ran from the warehouse and hid behind barrels along the dock, suppressing adrenaline giggles.

–You liked it, she said.

Silvio made a fist, then pointed to the pockets of his shorts.

–¡Gimme my earn, you! Graciela hissed. She clutched at his pocket. A puff of hair flopped over her eye.

–You liked it too, he said.

They wrestled, the strange arousal they had felt in the warehouse pumping through them again.

–I'll hold it for when I come for you, Silvio said in between breaths.

Graciela had to trust Silvio. She tied up her hair into four knots and ran to the market, where she should have been, before Mai sent her brother for her. Silvio kept his head down to try to hide the recently-paid-man brightness in his eyes. He should have been home helping his father with the coal. Graciela and Silvio did not know they had just been immortalized.

Absentmindedly, Graciela plucked four pieces of yucca for bar- ter from the vendor's selection. Silvio's narrow back had disappeared into the market crowd in a swagger that thickened the dread in Graciela's throat. She was about to hand the vendor a lard can's worth of pigeon peas, only to realize that she had left it at the warehouse.

–Devil's toying with my peas.

Graciela bit the inside of her cheek. She turned away and fled.

From the Hardcover edition.

What People are Saying About This

Junot Diaz
"An electrifying debut. Powerfullly written, meticulously imagined and arresting to its core, Nelly Rosario's novel is a flame for the mind and heart, the sort of gift you are endlessly grateful for."
Edwidge Danticat
"A gorgeous first novel, epic and poetic."
Ernesto Quinonez
"Like old photographs or a love story playing on a distant radio, Rosario's prose resonates with an elegant sadness. A three part melody, each sung in a different era by women whose lives are ever changing. From the Dominican Republic to the USA, they sing the history of our people, where we came from, what we've become and where we're headed."
—(Ernesto Quinonez, author of Bodega Dreams)
Cristina Garcia
"A rich tapestry of Dominican history with the vivid details of unforgettable lives."
Julia Alvarez
"Like a Caribbean Scheherazade, Rosario casts a spell on her readers with this saga of three generation of Dominican women whose yearning becomes our own."

Meet the Author

Nelly Rosario was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Brooklyn, where she now lives. She received a B.A. in engineering from MIT and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University. She was named a “Writer on the Verge” by the Village Voice Literary Supplement in 2001. Song of the Water Saints won the 2002 Pen Open Book Award.

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Song of the Water Saints 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As I read the book I felt I was living it as well. The book couldn¿t be more real. Raised in DR the book reminded me of the childhood of many Dominican women not only back in my country but in the United States as well. I can¿t wait to read her second book.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
everyone should read ''song of the water saints'' by Nelly Rosario i met her! she visited our school she was awesome!