Review: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

Rating: 3/5

Who might like this? Folks who want a fairly easy read about complicated family dynamics in a New York-based Puerto Rican family.  The biggest reason to read this is to learn more about Puerto Rican history and current issues. 


Do you know the kind of book that you have very high expectations of, that you really want to be something special…and then it just misses the mark? Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xochitl Gonzalez, is a prime example. It is solidly pretty good. It is a readable, decently plotted novel that you may well like. I liked it, but it had some flaws, and thus it falls into three star territory. Which is still alright! The disappointment comes in that it could easily have been better.

It is 2017, and New York City siblings Olga and Pietro Acevedo are living the American dream of success to all outward appearances. Their family has deep roots in Puerto Rico, and their mother left them when they were young to join guerrilla fighters in Latin America. There are deep undercurrents in Olga and Pietro’s lives, as each negotiates the tension between what it means to be true to their Puerto Rican roots while living in a society that values fame and money as markers of achievement. Add to this the challenge of living in a society that racializes their Brown skin. Both Olga and Pietro have major maternal abandonment issues, and plenty of secrets to keep. Olga is now a wedding planner to the financial elite, and Pietro is a US Congressman. The backdrop is the devastating Hurricane Maria that tore apart Puerto Rico in 2017, and the US government’s abysmal response to it.

There was a lot I liked about this book. The characters were well written, and complex enough to be interesting. Olga has made some poor choices, but she’s smart and insightful and doesn’t kid herself about her own motivations. I wasn’t prepared to like her, but as I read on, I liked her more and more. Pietro was sympathetically written, dealing with his own demons, and had a similar level of insight. There was some unexpected humour, as Olga’s cynical worldview showed itself. One clear theme emerged: an exploration of how the main characters–and probably many of us–repeatedly hit and ricochet off the expectations of our parents and upbringing. It’s like we can see it happening, but can’t stop it. Perhaps, if we try, we can bend the trajectory a bit. Olga and Pietro are fighting against this ongoing game of Pong.

I also appreciated that this novel was fundamentally about Puerto Rico and the injustice that it’s people have suffered. As a Canadian, Puerto Rico has not been on my radar much so this story was welcome. The story prompted me to do my own reading about the history of Puerto Rico, and learn more about some of the political and ethical issues there. This alone makes the novel a worthy read. One highlight for me was searching out and reading a poem cited in the book by Nuyorican (New Yorker + Puerto Rican) poet Pedro Pietri called Puerto Rican Obituary. It was so impactful, especially after reading Olga Dies Dreaming.

Unfortunately, there were elements that didn’t work for me. I was enjoying the plot, thankful that the main characters were insightful, and thinking…hmmm, maybe a three star rating is on the low side…then one of my biggest pet peeves hit. I’m going to call it the Soap Opera Effect. There are times when someone knows something and keeps it secret, and misunderstanding ensues. Sometimes, the plot hinged on this! This took me right out of the story. You just want to tell the characters to have an honest conversation, then there’d be no problem. At the same time, the prose became very explanatory, with too much telling, and not enough showing. Finally, a few of the supporting characters were written as entirely one-note with no complexity, which became more evident as the novel progressed. 

Overall, I found Olga Dies Dreaming somewhat uneven. It tries to be both literary and popular fiction, and it is an uneasy marriage. It’s a good read, instructive and compassionate about Puerto Rican issues, not boring, and has some likeable characters, but didn’t challenge me the way a deeper, literary novel would. In the end, I would recommend it for its focus on Puerto Rican social justice issues in an engaging way, to an audience (like me) that may not have picked up a nonfiction book on the topic.


Favourite Quotes

“It’s a myth about motherhood, Olga felt, that the time in utero imbues mothers with a lifelong understanding of their children. Yes, they know their essences, this she didn’t doubt, but mothers are still humans who eventually form their own ideas of both who their kids are and who they think they should be. Inevitably there were disparities.”

“And he knew these people. They were the same kinds of people he had to spend time with when re-election season rolled around, courting donations. They were nice people, generally, but their litany of problems, real or imagined, never waned. Nor did their sense of urgency around getting these problems resolved, their allergy to even a moment’s discomfort quite severe.”

“But he liked to come down here, look at the water, and remember the nights when he was allowed to be completely whole, nights before anyone knew who he was. He tried to calculate if his total good done was greater than the sum of harm facilitated during his time in public office, and he wasn’t sure of the equation’s sum.”

“Olga felt she had been paddling for years in no discernible direction except away from her fear of not being enough.”


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