Book of the Month: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

Welcome to the book of the month! Let’s get to it. The book of this month is Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez. The book is about Olga Isabel Acevedo, a 40-year-old Nuyorican from South Brooklyn. Olga and her brother, Prieto Acevedo, had it tough: they were abandoned by their revolutionary mother when they were young and their father contracted AIDS amidst a struggle with addiction during the height of the epidemic (both the drug AND AIDS epidemic). Because of these unusual and unfortunate circumstances, Olga, who was raised by her grandmother, is fierce, never wavers, and determined to succeed. When we meet her she is now an owner of a successful business she built from scratch. She plans weddings for the rich, famous, and powerful and she is not above overcharging brides for nonsensical napkins or fencing liquor for Russian mobsters. But she is not the only one with skeletons in her cupboard. Her brother, the epitome of the American dream, is a fiercely charismatic and savvy politician dubbed “the Latino Obama” (listen, I cringed too). This book shows how secrets unravel and ghosts of parents dead and alive hunt the siblings as they chase after the American dream even as it slowly becomes a nightmare.

So, first the good. It is beautifully written and is a fantastic debut. The author is lyrical and she draws you into the world of Olga and Prieto; especially Olga. You just want to keep going with this book and you’re completely drawn into the story, for sure! I didn’t want it to end. The dialogue was astute and because of this, you just know Olga and Prieto LOVE each other. It was great to see another representation of unadulterated sibling love.  My most favorite part of this book is the infusion of culture, and tradition, and family. Despite such crazy background, Prieto and Olga come from a lot of love in the form of their extended family. Whether it’s weddings, parties, or just a regular summer afternoon, that family is loud and boisterous in the most loving way.  It felt familiar too. There was a particular wedding scene, with all its commotion and chaos that just felt [IN EVERY SENSE] exactly like a Nigerian wedding. All that many aunties and uncles? Yup, screams Nigerian lol. The sense of community felt like a warm embrace, even to the reader.  I mean, that heartfelt speech that Tia Lola gave Olga about being there for her: beautiful! I just love Tia Lola and how she redefined love and parenthood. 

This book also tackles a lot of important issues and does so very thoroughly and thoughtfully too. I was especially intrigued to read more about the gentrification that is plaguing our cities and forcing locals/indigenes out of their homes. She shows us how white people come into places that don’t belong to them and infect it with coffee shops, and luxury condominiums, and all kinds of shiny nonsense. It forces you to reckon with at least one of the issues and to evaluate the injustices that plague our society. Despite having a huge component being political and set in 2017 America, I love how she did not make it about Trump at all or even name it. For all we know, it could have been a fictional president that was that awful. 

But too much of everything is never good. It packs too many themes: gentrification, colonization, the AIDS epidemic, political corruption, Rican descendants in the mainland, abandonment, corporate greed, revolution/resistance, oy. While these are all issues I would want to tackle and expand upon further individually, there was so so much going on that you almost got lost in the plot. Similarly, the political commentary was...jarring. It was a LOT. And this is coming from someone who is extremely political and extremely aware and extremely into social justice. I am a red neck/right winger's nightmare. Yet even I felt like the issues were being dumped on me like bags of sand. That's not altogether bad, but I don't necessary know that that's what I want in a novel. I read a LOT of nonfiction (about class, race, justice) and then I read novels. I think someone who deliberately distinguishes her reading like so also needs a break sometimes. But that’s just me.

It's funny that the blurb and lots of online summaries describe this book using terms like "...until she meets Matteo who forces her to confront the effects of long-held family secrets,” thereby making you think this is a love/romance story of some sorts. First of all, that was the least developed parts of the novel. Don't get me wrong, the romance part was grounding, and it was refreshing to read about love that wasn't toxic but it was certainly not a core part of the novel. And, for the life of me, I can't understand how he forced her to confront anything, at least not in the version I read.

The letters. We have to talk about this. What manner of god-awful, selfish, narcissistic mother was Blanca? Wow. In a lot of ways (I don’t know if the author meant it like so) she represented so many people today with a strong sense of righteousness and ideologies that they lose sight of every nuance, with all the righteous ramblings (hello Twitter threads) and grandstanding, yuck. The people that talk and talk and talk about freeing the oppressed but never once do anything towards the cause but noisemaking. The people that pontificate and combine words to make them sound nice but never actually achieve anything worthwhile. Yeah, those people. Apart from those letters being so inorganic, they were the worst part of the book for me. 

I have scoured online about the author, Xochitl, and see a lot of resemblance between she and Olga. They are both Nuyorican. Both have mothers with complex revolutionary backgrounds. Both were raised by a grandparent. Both planned weddings for a living at some point. And both are in their forties. I do understand writing what you know but I love when fiction is clearly distinct from its writer. That’s just me. 

Those were the neutrals. Now, let's tackle the bad. There are not that many black men featured in this book; which is fine. What bugs me a little is how the one black father in this book is the one that leaves his son after a divorce and just vanishes. It’s sooooo tiny (I know I’m being extra) but significant enough to weigh heavily on my mind. That’s the thing about stereotypes and single stories; they can be told and retold until it’s all people know and all that sticks. Did the author do this deliberately? Absolutely not. I am certain she is not prejudiced at all (if anything this is an activist) but it’s funny what sticks. 

I love having a sense of place in a book. But as I said regarding Paper Gods, it can be painful to sit through when it’s too much. Pages and pages about corner shops, and roads, and diners, and bars, please I’m begging. This is also a consequence of only “writing what you know”. 

And here is the worst for me because of how notoriously American it is: there was a constant reference to the “third world” throughout this book that made me cringe. 

“The government has us begging for supplies like third world countries.” 

“If we were a third world country, they would have come by now.”

“Wow I want to go and see what it’s like to have a third world country situation here in America.”

Direct quotations from characters in the book. 

It was gross. It felt callous even if that was not the intent of the author. As if those in these so-called countries are worthy of oppression in  a way Puerto Ricans and other Americans aren’t. It was sad because it wasn’t written as a form of irony at all. 

The ending felt a little rushed but I think that may be because I just wanted more! I don’t think I will have to wait for long as it’s already being made into motion picture on Hulu! I have to say I love the cast so far. When I was reading the book and saw the character Matteo (and at the time I didn’t know it was being made into a motion picture), I immediately thought “this could be played by Jesse Williams!” Imagine my delight and shock when I saw that indeed, Jesse Williams will be playing the role. 

In conclusion, it was a very enjoyable book and a phenomenal debut for sure. Like Leggy from Twonightstand said, I am also curious to see what Puerto Ricans think of the book. 

This felt a little long for Book of the Month, but it was also a rather long book! I will try to condense future Book of the Month posts though.



No comments