Olga Dies Dreaming
Olga Dies Dreaming is a lot of things. An urgent remark upon America’s colonization of Puerto Rico and subsequent refusal to allow them state’s rights. A character study about two siblings, one closeted and HIV positive, the other coming into her own as a Latina woman who won’t settle for white standards of what is important. A warm romance between two people who meet by chance at a bar. A family saga, a story about a distant, hectoring mother whose grand ambitions for participating in the liberation of her motherland have collapsed into promises unfilfilled. Much of it is fascinating, well-sculpted, and energized by a pugnacious sense of outrage, but the last few chapters give us easy plot solutions and turns an elusive, manipulative mother figure into a monster that lacks layers
Siblings Olga and Pedro – called Prieto – Acevedo grew up together in the outer boroughs of Brooklyn. They’re both successful in their chosen fields, but have had to compromise on who they are in order to get ahead. They grew up watching their father slip into the grip of drug addiction after his own activist dreams died; he passed of AIDS and the two siblings became determined to succeed in the wake of his loss, being awarded scholarships and reaching for high-profile career paths. Olga is a successful wedding planner who plots ceremonies for contemptuous rich white people, but has no romance of her own on the horizon; she is also a reality television personality. Prieto is a congressman who’s the darling of his rapidly gentrifying neighborhood who is determined to point out the injustices and racism his Latine neighbors suffer through. No one knows that his marriage is a sham in spite of the existence of his adorable daughter, Lourdes.
Olga’s romantic luck seems to be changing after she bumps into a relator named Matteo in a bar after attending her sister-in-law’s wake. A one-night stand seems to be leading to much more, and she’s begun to feel cracks forming in her mindless support of her upper-class lifestyle. Prieto has a lot of important eyes on him, but soon he’s accused of prioritizing Puerto Rico’s concerns about its emancipation over those of his constituents and his fellow New Yorkers. Conversely, when he finds himself a deciding vote on the PROMESA bill, he finds himself accused of corruption and siding with big industry. And that’s when the bottom falls out of their lives for both siblings.
Long ago, Olga and Prieto’s mother Blanca left them with their maternal grandmother so that she could dedicate herself fully to a life of activism in Puerto Rico. Her dream is to liberate the country from American rule, and to that end she’s become a member of The Young Lords and now heads a faction of her own. But Blanca has always tried to stay in touch with her children via letters. It’s desire for her approval that guides Prieto’s policies, just as Olga’s life as a wedding planner to the uber-rich disturbs her. When Hurricane Maria hits, Olga finds a new purpose in life in the aftermath, and Prieto finds himself in Puerto Rico – meeting with Blanca herself for the first time in a decade. But when Blanca calls, Olga and Prieto are both forced to face an uncomfortable truth about their mother.
Honestly, we didn’t need PoV chapters from Olga’s slimy lover, who soon becomes her ex, the appropriately-named Dick. Dick is basically white privilege in a can and a person whom Olga eventually outgrows and then crawls back to on her mother’s orders. (He calls her “Cherry”, because learning her real name is beneath him.) There are only a few chapters from him, and of course we all know men like him exist, but I would gladly trade any Dick bits for a peek into Blanca’s head. She’s fascinatingly complex and sympathetic – well, for most of the book.
It’s those last chapters where things start to fall apart, as Gonzalez has to bring the narrative to a neat and somewhat conventional conclusion. The epilogue picks everything back up again, but the simplification of at least one character disappointed me.
And yet, in spite of the massive and messy number of topics discussed here, Olga Dies Dreaming gives readers an unforgettable heroine, a cause worth caring about, and a story about extended family love that resonates with the reader.
Note: The book contains one instance of rape (on page) and reference to suicide and abortion (which take place off page.)
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Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier
|Review Date:||March 20, 2022|
|Review Tags:||AoC | HIV and AIDS | PoC|
This sounds very different but, from Lisa’s review and what I have read elsewhere, this book sounds very, very angry. I get that there is a reason behind the anger but that’s not what I usually seek out in my fiction reading. For example, this statement: “Olga is a successful wedding planner who plots ceremonies for contemptuous rich white people” makes me wonder why I want to be at the receiving end of that kind of hostility. Are her customers outright contemptuous of her or is that her (mis)interpretation of their actions? It seems the novel may be trying to provoke “white fragility” and I’d rather look into that in a more analytical way, not in a novel to relax with. Maybe I have got the wrong end of the stick here and perhaps I have misunderstood the message but this one is not for me. An excellent review Lisa as always and thank you – it was thought provoking and well written.
I wouldn’t call the book “angry,” though it does take an honest look at racism Latine people face and is properly outraged about the state of politics when it comes to America’s treatment of Puerto Rico. It does not entirely elide Blanca as right and does point up the fact that her abandoning her kids for selfish reasons was a messed-up choice and does show her manipulating her children and them becoming aware of this.
Vis this example – the clients are definitely largely the white rich people who are ignorant in their privilege.
Which is fine.
And I think it’s fair for readers to titrate their reading and pick and choose books and genres that call to them. I read all day long in the media about clueless rich white people who are unaware of their privilege. I appreciate that–the NYT keeps me on my toes and makes me work to do better. I don’t, however, especially look for that in a romance. As a rich white person, I don’t always want to be the villain in all my fictional reads.
Interestingly, in their review of this, the Washington Post headline was:
A smart romantic comedy about a wedding planner looking for love
I have the sense that romance readers would NOT call this a romcom.
SOME of Olga’s storyline has romcom qualities but yeah, the book’s really about Prieto and Olga wrestling with their mother’s legacy.