This story hooked me from the first sentence.
I’m going with the synopsis on the back cover because it sums up the story well.
At eighteen, Soledad couldn’t get away fast enough from her contentious family with their endless tragedies and petty fights. Two years later, she’s an art student at Cooper Union with a gallery job and a hip East Village walk-up. But when Tía Gorda calls with the news that Soledad’s mother has lapsed into an emotional coma, she insists that Soledad’s return is the only cure. Fighting the memories of open hydrants, leering men, and slick-skinned teen girls with raunchy mouths and snapping gum, Soledad moves home to West 164th Street. As she tries to tame her cousin Flaca’s raucous behavior and to resist falling for Richie — a soulful, intense man from the neighborhood — she also faces the greatest challenge of her life: confronting the ghosts from her mother’s past and salvaging their damaged relationship.
Evocative and wise, Soledad is a wondrous story of culture and chaos, family and integrity, myth and mysticism, from a Latina literary light.
Have you ever read a story that mirrors your family so well that you feel as if the book was written for you? Such was my experience when reading Soledad. It wasn’t exactly the same as my life, but the characters and how the characters react to their situations were familiar.
“It’s always like that: just when I think I don’t give a shit about what my family thinks, they find a way to drag me back home.”
Cruz had me at the first sentence and I find that weird. I knew from reading that sentence that I would enjoy the story and that I would find it hard to pull away from it for long. Why is that? How can some authors pull me in from so early in the story while others can’t? Is it a matter or style or voice? I’d really like to puzzle this out.
The narrator’s voice drew me into the story. The story is told in first-person but from multiple perspectives with Soledad as our protagonist. Soledad is a young, 20-something woman who has left home to seek freedom and space from her family. She is an artist and works part-time at a gallery. Her family are immigrants from Dominica Republic who settled in Washington Heights, a bad part of New York City, where Soledad has spent most of her life. When the story opens, Soledad is returning home to visit her ailing mother.
I could relate to Soledad in many ways. I could relate to her struggles as an immigrant, as the child of immigrants, and as a young woman developing ideals that conflict with what her family believe and enforce. I could relate to her frustration with having to live with family members who constantly pry into her life and refuse to acknowledge that she’s no longer a child, and I could relate to her skepticism about her family’s spiritual beliefs. When Soledad sees her mother, Olivia, she believes that Olivia is in need of medical help due to her semi-catatonic state. But Soledad’s grandmother and aunt assure her that Olivia is simply resolving some issues in her sleep. Soledad thinks they’re crazy.
“My grandmother is split between ideas, country, her dreams and what’s real.”
In this way, Cruz includes elements of magical realism in her story. Olivia is indeed resolving issues in her sleep. She is haunted by her past and the magnitude of all she is dealing with seems so great that she has become speechless and near immobile at times. Ghosts from her past manifest in the present and cause trouble for both Olivia and her family members so her sister, Soledad’s aunt named Gorda, turns to her herbs to cleanse Olivia’s apartment of its bad spirits.
Spirits, bad juju, and the like are easily believed by Soledad’s family but Soledad fights against this at first as she battles with her cultures and identities, being both an American and a Dominican and living in America and thus influenced by American ideals but having a strong Dominican upbringing with family who still hold onto their Dominican beliefs. As the story progresses, Soledad learns more about herself, her parents, and origin and begins to accept herself for who she is and to feel comfortable being Soledad: an immigrant from Washington Heights with a family that some might call crazy.
I enjoyed watching all the characters develop. Though Soledad is the protagonist, the story focuses on all members of her family who are all affected and changed by what has happened to Soledad’s mother. I did not have a favorite character in this story because though I could relate to Soledad on many levels, I did not like her. I thought her too stuck-up, “stoosh” is the Jamaican slang, and though I understood why that is, I couldn’t shake my initial reaction to her. I did, however, like Ciego, a blind, wise old man who dishes out advice to everyone, and Soledad’s grandmother was pretty cool too because she reminded me of my own. However, Flaca, Soledad’s cousin, was an annoyance because of her immaturity but her character rang true to me for how girls her age sometimes behave.
Though I enjoyed the story, I was not a fan of the writing. It’s sometimes descriptive, which I liked, but other times the sentences threw me off and I can’t say what caused that. It wasn’t the inclusion of Spanish words, which adds authenticity to the story, I just don’t know why. Also, no quotation marks were included to indicate speech, which sometimes made me confused but I got by. I did not like the ending. It’s hard to say what happens. It’s pretty open-ended but to me, it seems that the story ended with storylines still hanging.
It’s a pretty good story and I recommend it if you’re looking for something short but good that focuses on family, relationships, and identity. I also recommend it if you’re looking for a “diverse read” recommendation or a story that includes magical realism. I enjoyed reading it and loved that I could easily see parts of my and my family’s experiences reflected in the story.
By the way, Richie seems like a really sweet, really sexy guy….or so I imagined him. 😉
Quotes from the book:
“Never be afraid of making a mess. That’s the fastest way of getting thing done.”
“Soledad, when you write something down, it keeps it alive. There is a certain power to words, memories, ideas when one writes them down.”