Book review: Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xochitl Gonzalez

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REVIEW:

Olga dies dreaming – Xochitl Gonzalez (small, brown, $37.99)
Reviewed by Louise Ward, Wardini Books

Olga and her brother, Prieto, had an unusual upbringing. Now in their 40s, both have deep roots in Brooklyn: Olga as a high-society event planner, Prieto as a politician with her neighborhood and its Latinx residents a top priority. Raised by their grandmother and an array of uncles and aunts, the siblings are haunted by the disappearance and death of their father, and their abandonment by their mother, Blanca, when they were teenagers.

Blanca has kept a one-way line of communication with her children during the decades she’s been missing. She left to fully commit to her cause, the liberation of the United States from her native Puerto Rico. Her letters are initially positive, calling to action her children whom she believes she has raised to be the next generation of revolutionaries.

As Olga and Prieto grow into adults and Blanca’s network monitors and reports to their mother, her missives turn to disappointment and judgment.

Blanca is the centerpiece and missing piece in the lives of the siblings. Olga struggled to lift herself out of poverty; she is now well off, a minor celebrity and, in her mother’s mind and buried deep within hers, a betrayal, nothing more than a glorified maid to the white man. Olga’s broken heart cannot commit to love, until she meets Matteo, an honest and loving man who has his own interesting problems. Their story is beautiful, the key to Olga defining who she really is.

Olga Dies Dreaming’s tone is modern and sassy. Brooklyn is alive with the vibrancy of old neighborhoods – children playing in the streets, the sounds and smells of noisy family life – as well as the not-so-welcome gentrification of hipster developments and craft beer bars. The story deftly deals with identity and entitlement, occasional but deep-rooted racism, love and responsibility. Olga is real enough to tear off the page – lively, witty, loyal, confused.

There is a lot of fun and warmth in this novel where a lot happens in the inner and outer lives of the characters. Reading it is like spending time with very cool people, going through their dramas, their loves and their crises with them. I was fascinated by Olga and I’m very happy to have met her.

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