Esmeralda Santiago, best known for her 1994 memoir When I Was Puerto Rican, has written the epic story of Ana Larragoity Cubillas, a 19th century Spainard who yearns to live an adventurous life overseas after reading the journals of her ancestors who traveled to the New World three centuries earlier. At the age of 18, she convinces her husband, Ramón, and his identical twin brother, Inocente, to run a sugar cane plantation in Puerto Rico.
“I don’t expect to be happy all the time,” Ana tells a friend. “I’d rather be surprised by one moment every so often to remind me that joy is possible, even if I have to pay for it later.”
Good thing she has that attitude because, over the course of two decades, Ana endures the death of loved ones, adultery, family disputes, a fatal cholera epidemic, and bad accounting practices. But Ana leads the large plantation to success, employing more than seventy-five workers – many of them slaves. At the same time, the United States is in the midst of the Civil War over its slaves. Some of Ana’s family members support abolition in Puerto Rico, and the slaves’ uprising leads to the story’s tragic conclusion.
But readers can be tested to reach the ending of this thick book. The story drags at times – especially when Santiago provides historical background that, while providing context, makes the novel seem like a history book. Still, readers will keep turning the pages because they will want to know how Ana handles the next obstacle in her way.
• Santiago talked about and read from her book to PBS Newshour earlier this month.
• She wrote an essay about retirement for AARP VIVA.