Gracias, Garcias.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez (1992)

I have two copies of this book. Both were bought for probably 50 cents at a used book sale, years apart after I forgot I bought the first one. And for years, they both sat on my shelf. For some reason, a couple weeks ago, I picked one of them up again when I accidentally left my current read at work. And I’m so glad I did.

This novel was right up my alley as far as characterization and voice goes. Only, in this unique and beautiful story, the characterization is more of the Garcia family, rather than the individual family members–Carlos and Laura (parents), and Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia (daughters)–as they leave their native Republica Dominicana for New York in 1960.  By the end, you really feel like you understand the family as a unit; understand, love, and and maybe even wish you were a Garcia yourself.

Alvarez makes some interesting authorial plays, the first one being with time. She splits the Garcia story into three parts, and then traces the story backwards. Part 1, for example, follows the years 1989-1972. I’m still not sure why she chose to write it this way, but I like it. Starting with the first chapter, it’s like meeting new friends and then spending the next 290 pages learning all their past stories until you become bffs.

For the most part, the novel examines the immigrant experience, focusing on one or more Garcias per chapter, sometimes in first, sometimes third person. We watch as Sandi becomes disillusioned with American goodness, as Carla gets tormented by prejudiced schoolboys, as Yolanda returns to the homeland and finds she doesn’t belong anymore now that she’s an American, and as Fifi embraces American attitudes toward sexuality and gets shunned by her father. Similarly, Carlos–a well-known and capable doctor on the island–suffers humiliation when he’s not able to provide for his family in the States–and Laura–daughter of a prominent and influential family–loses herself and her purpose as a new American housewife. They grow, adjust, learn, and develop their lives and identities as Dominican Americans.

Sounds like a downer, huh? Perhaps that’s because I forgot to mention how funny and sweet it is at the same time. And it is just that. With humor and truth, Alvarez paints a unique picture of a typical immigrant family.

2.5 stars. Charming and so different than anything I’ve read before.

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