Julia Alvarez’s 1991 novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents follows four sisters from their adulthood in the United States to their childhood in the Dominican Republic. The book is funny, sad and always readable.
There’s Carla, “the responsible eldest”; Sandi, the “looker” who suffers a nervous breakdown; Yolanda, also known as “Yoyo,” the poet; and Sofía, or “Fifi,” the “plain one” who managed to snag “non-stop boyfriends.”
Instead of a straightforward plot, the family’s story is told in a series of vignettes in reverse chronological order. We first met the women as adults in the 1980s as they go through bad relationships and other problems. The book then goes back to the 1960s, when they first moved into the United States and they have to adjust to a different culture. The last part of the book takes place in the late 1950s, when they lived in the Dominican Republic under dictator Rafael Trujillo‘s rule.
Their time in their homeland makes for some of the most tense moments in the book. Their mother, Laura, severely punishes Yoyo when she inadvertently gets their father, a prominent doctor, in trouble. “You lose your head in this crazy hellhole, you do, and different rules apply,” she says.
It’s lines like that makes Alvarez such a great writer. Here’s another great passage in which she describes young Sandi’s urge to draw: “It seemed with so much protocol, I would never get to draw the brilliant and lush and wild world brimming over inside me. I tried to keep my mind on the demonstration, but something began to paw the inside of my drawing arm. It clawed at the doors of my will, and I had to let it out. I took my soaking brush in hand, stroked my gold cake, and a cat streaked out on my paper in one lightening stroke, whiskers, tail, meow and all!”
One gripe: it’s hard to tell the women apart sometimes. It seems Yoyo receives most of the attention. In fact, she later got her own book –1997’s ¡Yo!.
But Garcia Girls is an intriguing read about a family loving each other through the years, in good times and in bad. This piece of dialogue between their mother and a psychiatrist sums up their life:
“’The siblings,’ Dr. Tandlemann said. ‘Were they close? Was their any sense of rivalry between them?’
‘Siblings?’ The mother frowned at all this crazy psychology talk. ‘They’re sisters,’ she said by way of explanation.”
• Julia Alvarez grew up in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States at age 10. She’s written numerous books, but is best known for Garcia Girls and In the Time of Butterflies. Her next book, A Wedding in Haiti, comes out in April.
Source: I checked this book out of the library.