As Olga Dies Dreaming opens, Olga is preoccupied with high-end napkins. She is in the throes of planning a wedding for the New York elite – a job for which she has little enthusiasm, but from which has built a successful career. She’s turned forty and is sleeping with an odious construction mogul (who turns out all the more odious as time goes by) who she met on his private jet whilst arranging his daughter’s wedding. On paper she is well-off, well-respected (with a regular slot on breakfast television) and well-educated – although none of these things appear to bring her much joy.
On paper, her brother Prieto is also living the so-called American Dream. Touted as the ‘Latino Obama’, he is an elected Congressman representing Brooklyn, fighting to protect the interests and livelihoods of his Black and Brown constituents even as the neighbourhoods in which he grew up gentrify at an alarming rate. But he’s battling with his own demons, blackmailed by cartoonish property developer villains into doing their bidding – directly at odds with his political and moral imperative – because he is unable to truly accept his own identity.
‘How much, she and her brother realized, they had internalized this, becoming these people who needed to be seen in order to exist.’
At the core of what pushes and pulls these two characters is the absence of their parents, their mother in particular. ‘Every single thing she had done with her life,’ Olga reflects, ‘she had figured out for herself.’ Her stalwart independence hides a more painful history: their father was a drug addict who died of AIDS, and their mother abandoned Olga and Prieto when they were children to pursue an anarchic life of a revolutionary fighting for a free Puerto Rico (and a fascinating, if sometimes slightly heavy-handed, history lesson to the reader ensues).
Yet rather than vanishing, never to be heard of again, their mother Blanca keeps tabs from afar and writes to the siblings over the years – letters which are interwoven into the story. She seems incapable of knowing ‘the difference between missives and mothering’, and her often-derisory letters contain nothing but political lectures and disapproval of the choices her children are making in her absence. There’s a lot to unpack about the weight of parental expectation and how these characters are both drawn to and pull away from the values Blanca so ardently believes in.
There is an irrepressible energy to this story as we are propelled through social and political events (like the devastating Hurricane Maria that destroys the island’s infrastructure) that intersect with the lives of these characters. The culture of the Puerto Rican diaspora is tightly and effectively woven into the novel, and I adored the wider cast of richly imagined members of Olga’s extended family. Gonzalez shifts in and out of different viewpoints, providing us a fuller picture of these complex people – Prieto, who Olga idolizes, is derided by others as an insufferable politician. She also sees him as someone adept at ‘linguistic mezcla’ and an ‘ability to be all facets of [himself] all at once’ – the irony being that for years he has been hiding both his true identity and corruption. Our heroes and heroines are not straightforwardly good or bad.
There’s heaps of heart as these characters learn to navigate the legacy their mother left them with and forge their own paths in life and love. The writing sizzles and propels the plot, even when some of the backstory threatens to slow us down. I loved this complex and compelling story about political and personal histories, capitalism, colonialism, and so much more. It really packed a punch.
2 thoughts on “A richly imagined, unforgettable debut: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez ★★★★½”
This was our monthly book club book. It generated a lot of discussion. Although it wasn’t one of the best books I had read in 2023, one of the things I appreciated was educating me about Puerto Rico which I knew nothing about!
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I read it for book club too! I wouldn’t have picked it up based on the description alone, so I’m so glad I got the opportunity. I also knew very little about PR’s complex history before reading it.