Review: Dominicana

My Women’s Prize longlist journey continues with Dominicana by Angie Cruz. I didn’t think this book would be a good fit for me (and I do have complaints), but the low expectations did help me enjoy this one a bit more than I’d expected.

dominicanaIn the novel, fifteen year-old Ana agrees to marry a much older man at her family’s urging- it is not a relationship built on love, but rather on the expectation that Ana’s husband will take her to America and help bring her family to the US from the Dominican Republic as soon as possible. Ana finds it harder than she expected to settle into life with Juan- he’s cold and abusive, expects her to follow many “rules,” and is often absent (a blessing, actually, though Ana is lonely in America). The year is 1965 and it’s a tumultuous time, but as Juan is pulled away from home to take care of business matters, Ana begins to find her footing in New York.

“Juan keeps his head down when he passes the police. Inside the apartment, he is a bull. On the street, he looks small, vulnerable, even scared. As if I can blow him away like a speck of dust.”

I haven’t actually read very many stories of immigration from Spanish-speaking countries- a few, but nothing from the Dominican Republic, as far as I can remember. I think this worked in my favor with Dominicana, because the plot does follow a very predictable path if you’re at all familiar with this type of narrative. Even without having read having read specifically from this area and/or the year 1965, nothing in this book managed to surprise me. If you’re new to immigration stories, this might work better for you.

Overall, Domincana was such a middle-of-the-road book for me- it didn’t inspire active hatred but nor did it do anything at all to impress me. There are so many interesting facets to this story with the potential to turn this narrative in a new and intriguing direction, but each stops short. For instance, Ana’s apartment is right across the street from where Malcolm X is killed, and though she sees the commotion and some of the aftermath it means nothing to her, even as it comes up over and over again throughout the book. Her husband is abusive and adulterous, though neither trait is properly examined or addressed. Ana’s early interactions and experiences in New York- people or places she’s told to avoid, cultural norms different than what she’s used to (she is yelled at by the apartment super for washing her floors the wrong way, for example), English classes for non-native speakers-  are mentioned briefly and then glossed over. There are so many small details that I would’ve liked to see expanded for a closer look at how Ana learns to navigate her new life and what New York means to her.

Relatedly, a bit more agency from Ana across the board would not have gone amiss. Of course she is a fifteen year-old stuck in a small apartment with a domineering husband who does as little as possible to help her acclimate to the city, but she does so little. When Juan suggests that she learn to drive or take a typing course she never reminds or asks him about these plans when he doesn’t bring them up again, despite her initially expressing excitement. When someone mentions that there are free ESL classes near her building, or that Ana might make some money by selling her cooking, she wants to do these things and yet doesn’t even try until Juan is out of town. She neither asks nor makes any attempt to reach for opportunities on her own; surely her situation plays a role, but Ana’s tendency to wait and see makes her a rather boring character who follows others’ leads throughout most of the novel. In her acknowledgments, Cruz mentions having changed the main perspective while writing, and I must admit I’d be very curious to know who’s perspective she tried first, and whether it might actually have worked better.

Instead of focusing on any other aspect of Ana’s immigration, Dominicana reaches for the reader’s heartstrings through romance. Before Ana leaves the Dominican Republic, there is her friend Gabriel. Then there is her husband, Juan, who is a brute but Ana does try her best to make the marriage work, for her family’s sake and her own. And finally, there’s César, Juan’s youngest brother, the man who sees and appreciates Ana. Of course there is still the fact that she is fifteen (César is twenty), pregnant, and married to his brother, but these details barely factor into their emotions. In fact, most of Ana’s attempts to make a home for herself in New York are tied to her romantic excursions with César. I would have preferred a narrative that singled out Ana’s experience and dug into her cultural transition with a little less focus on which attractive man she would end up with,  but I do think these relationships and the comparisons between them are one of the book’s greatest strengths. If you enjoy reading romance, you might have better luck with this book.

“When you fall in love, you have to play it out even if everyone calls you crazy. That’s why they call it falling. We have no control over it.”

The prose is readable but inelegant. The structure is very straightforward- most of the chapters show Ana’s point of view, but a few also deliver short bursts from Juan and Ana’s other family members. The chapters are short.  None of it seems very literary, which I think is at the root of all of the issues I’ve listed above: placement on the Women’s Prize list (or any prize list) always raises my expectations for a novel, though actually I wouldn’t be surprised for Dominicana to fare well with a contemporary/popular fiction audience. Nothing about this book was a strong turn-off for me; while I don’t think I would’ve rated it any higher even under other circumstances and I can’t quite make sense of how this book ended up on this longlist in a year when there were so very many strong contenders, its placement, I think, is a disservice to an adequate novel that will likely appeal to a different crowd. I cannot see this title being shortlisted and I don’t imagine it’ll rank highly for many longlist readers, but I do think a more receptive audience for it exists. Unfortunately it just wasn’t the right fit for me.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It was just… fine? I was able to read this book pretty quickly and painlessly, despite what has turned into a mostly negative review. It’s not my least favorite book from the longlist, but I’m probably not going to be reading anything more from Angie Cruz.

Update: I am bumping my rating for this book down to 2 stars. The reading experience was mostly fine, but over time I’m finding that what’s sticking with me is the heavier focus on the questionable romance with César at the cost of a deeper exploration of the logistical and psychological difficulties of uprooting one’s life and trying to adapt into a foreign country. This should have been a much more emotionally engaging read, and not for the half-baked love story. It’s place on the Women’s Prize shortlist now also raises my expectations a bit higher for literary merit, which I’m just not seeing enough of here. I might have had a better time with this one outside of the Women’s Prize, but in the end I think this book was just not for me!

 

The Literary Elephant

13 thoughts on “Review: Dominicana”

    1. Thank you! I’m not confident I would have liked it any more had I read it separately from the WP, but picking it up for the longlist definitely helped set it up to fail, for me at least. Such a shame! There are definitely other books I would’ve liked to see in this one’s place.

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  1. Great review, Emily. I liked your point about how this being on the WP longlist raised your expectations for literariness, on which count it didn’t seem to deliver for you. It made me think back on my low ratings so far and wonder if I’d rated them low because of my expectations of the prose and writing as well.

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    1. Thank you! It does seem a little unfair of me to judge a book for not doing more than it set out to do, but I can’t seem to help holding prize nominees to a higher standard of literary quality. I’m glad to know I’m not alone on this though! Elevating the ordinary isn’t an unreasonable goal, but I definitely want lit prizes to introduce me to great books, not just ordinary ones!

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      1. Exactly!! I’ve actually been quite underwhelmed by what I’ve read so far and I’d say of the five I’ve read GWO is still the strongest contender in terms of subject matter and style. Really hope we’ll have better luck as we go through the rest of the list. 🙂

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  2. The only other Dominican Republic books I’ve read are by Junot Diaz, who has soured things by forcing himself on women. Even before that, I should have listened to his writing better. The main character is always a man who just wants to “get some” and will go to any lengths to get it. The women all seem like prostitutes, though they aren’t. I just have no clue what Diaz is trying to say about DR culture, but he sure isn’t endearing me to it.

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    1. Ah, I’ve only read one short story by Diaz so far and even based only on that I completely agree with your take on his writing. I’m certainly not in a hurry to read more from him. In comparison, Cruz’s Dominicana is much more pleasant- the husband is not, but the rest of the characters are much more tolerable, and the Dominican Republic is painted as a complex and struggling place (especially in the 60’s as they’re experiencing a political upheaval) but not on the whole as an undesirable one. But even though the descriptions may have been better, the writing still suffered here, unfortunately. I would love to eventually find a writer who really brings this area of the world and its people to life in a way that is compelling and enjoyable to read! I’ll have to keep looking.

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      1. I’d like to hear more about the dictator, Trujillo, in the DR. He was weirdly complex — killing people he didn’t like, but also implemented a big literacy program for everyone in the country. Maybe I just need to get a biography.

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      2. Yeah, Trujillo is mentioned in Dominicana but not examined with much depth. It would definitely be interesting to learn more about him! Actually the entire political situation in the mid-late 1900s seemed like it would be worth a closer look, especially once the US gets involved and acts in their own best interest instead of the DR’s… Perhaps I should look for some nonfiction as well.

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