A Puerto Rican flag flies on a beach landscape.

Book Review: Olga Dies Dreaming

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I generally stick to lighter reads, usually romantic comedies or fantastic YA novels, and rarely delve into anything heavy or overly political, yet when my book club suggested we read Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez, I really wanted to get out of my comfort zone and give it a shot.

Synopsis
It’s 2017, and Olga and her brother, Pedro “Prieto” Acevedo, are bold-faced names in their hometown of New York. Prieto is a popular congressman representing their gentrifying Latinx neighbourhood in Brooklyn while Olga is the tony wedding planner for Manhattan’s powerbrokers.

Despite their alluring public lives, behind closed doors, things are far less rosy. Sure, Olga can orchestrate the love stories of the 1%, but she can’t seem to find her own…until she meets Matteo, who forces her to confront the effects of long-held family secrets.

Twenty-seven years ago, their mother, Blanca, a Young Lord-turned-radical, abandoned her children to advance a militant political cause, leaving them to be raised by their grandmother. Now, with the winds of hurricane season, Blanca has come barreling back into their lives.

Set against the backdrop of New York City in the months surrounding the most devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico’s history, Olga Dies Dreaming is a story that examines political corruption, familial strife and the very notion of the American dream—all while asking what it really means to weather the storm.

My musings
For a story that begins with a scene talking about linen wedding napkins, it certainly takes us to deep places, like trauma, revolution and identity. I enjoyed that Gonzalez paired these characters’ stories with a short history of modern Puerto Rico because, as a Canadian, I can honestly say I didn’t know much about it. I often read stories about people like me or with whom I can relate, but this was a great way to learn something I knew very little about through fiction.

Honestly, I’m not sure I liked any of the characters in the book—but it didn’t really matter in this case. Everyone was self-centred and didn’t treat the people around them well, but many of them were doing what they needed to survive. Spoiler alert, Olga didn’t end up with the white picket fence and 2.5 children at the end of the story, which was actually quite refreshing to see—but the ending seemed rushed after the book was so long.

What I enjoyed the most from this story was learning about Puerto Rico and its history. Going into it knowing absolutely nothing, I did feel a little bit lost at times, but by the end, I felt like I at least had a general understanding of what the territory has been through. I legitimately thought it was a state, but that shows what I know. That being said, I think the book tried to tackle too many themes, making it a bit longer and harder to follow. There was a complicated family story, generational trauma/racism, the AIDS crisis, Puerto Rico, gentrification, political corruption…it was a lot. I wish there was a little more focus on one or a few of these—maybe the characters would have been more centred and understandable.

If you have the time to dive into a thick, heavy book that does a lot of telling instead of showing, I would definitely give this a try, if only to learn more about Puerto Rico—though I will be the first to admit that I have no idea if any of it is a correct depiction. It was a refreshing change from the usual romantic comedies that I read.

4 STARS

Abstract illustration of a woman's silhouette with flowers, stars and a the Puerto Rican skyline in bright blue, green and yellow. The title and author's name are written in black and the background is red.

“Her mother, though, didn’t know what it was to be deemed the thing less important. Less important than drugs, less important than a cause. Her mother didn’t understand what it required to shake that label—’less’—to prove it wrong to the world.” —Xochitl Gonzalez, Olga Died Dreaming

Thank you to Ana Toledo on Unsplash for the featured photo.

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