UPDATE: Two hours after I posted this review, Dominicana was named to the shortlist of six finalists for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (based in the UK). https://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/
By Angie Cruz
Flatiron Books, September 2019
$26.95, 319 pages
The last few years have brought us an unprecedented number of novels by Latina authors, many of which have become bestsellers, book club favorites, or critical favorites. While 20 years ago, the best-known Latina writers were Sandra Cisneros (Mexican-American), Isabel Allende (Chilean), Cristina Garcia (Cuban), and Julia Alvarez (Dominican), today the list of popular authors goes well beyond that short but potent list. Recent standout novels include The Affairs of the Falcons by Melissa Rivero, Everyone Knows You Go Home by Natalia Sylvester, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas-Contreras, and Dominicana by Angie Cruz.
The last of these books is a Caribbean version of both the fish out of water and coming of age novel. A teenage girl is brought to the United States, where she must adapt to a new country with a completely different culture and language while learning how to be married to an older man. In the course of sorting out the demands and conflicts of love and duty, she grows into a strong young woman.
Dominicana was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (U.K.), the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and the Aspen Words Literary Prize, so I had high expectations when I began. But I was immediately drawn in by the vibrant first-person narration, which brings the young protagonist and her life in a Dominican Republic village to life.
Before long, fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion is married off to Juan Ruiz, a local wheeler-dealer and bigshot twice her age, who shuttles between the DR and New York City, where he is said to be making a way for himself and his younger brothers, who emigrated with him. Ana’s mother views the marriage to Juan as an eventual ticket out of the DR for the whole family once Ana is settled in and has papers.
While the early portion of the book establishes Ana’s life in a village not far from the capital of Santo Domingo, the bulk of the story concerns her efforts to adapt to life in New York City, which is more like another planet to her, and to her marriage of convenience. Juan leaves her alone in their sixth floor Washington Heights apartment while he works at the Yonkers racetrack and runs at least one other business on the side. Juan wants a beautiful young wife to take care of him and give him a family. Ana feels a sense of claustrophobia from the start but understands her role in helping her family immigrate so they can have a better life. Not surprisingly, her relationship with Juan is complex and generally unsatisfying. Ana has her suspicions about his business dealings and frequent disappearances.
Her occasional babysitter is Juan’s younger brother, Cesar, as handsome, extroverted, and charming as Juan is plain, uncommunicative, and domineering. Cesar works in a dress factory in the fashion district and is only interested in dancing, drinking, and dressing to impress, all of which endear him to the ladies. Cesar soon becomes Ana’s best friend and trusted confidant. Ana doesn’t know English but wants to learn it so she can go to school to study something useful like accounting. But Juan warns her that the neighborhood is dangerous and not to leave the apartment without him or Cesar. When Juan has to return to the Dominican Republic and is stuck there for several months during a civil war, Ana takes advantage of her newfound freedom.
Through her encounters with various supporting characters, Ana begins to learn her way around this new world, both culturally and literally. Dominicana features a compelling depiction of the immigrant experience; viewing it through Ana’s eyes as she comes of age in a new world makes for a bittersweet and absorbing read. References to people and events of the time – Malcolm X, Jackie Kennedy, Juan Marichal, and the fashion, music, and changing demographics of the neighborhood — help to ground the story firmly in 1965.
There are a few hiccups in Ana’s narration. Occasionally, she thinks or speaks in a voice that suddenly has the wisdom of an older, more experienced woman (she is 15 and 16 in the novel). And a few bits of dialogue are too contemporary for 1965 New York City. These moments temporarily break the spell of an otherwise very consistent, believable narrative voice that keeps you close to Ana for 300 pages.
Cruz has woven a tangled web for her characters to traverse. Will Ana come to love Juan? Will he give her enough freedom to learn English, make friends, and start to become an American? Will Mama’s plan to bring the rest of the family to New York City come to pass? These questions and more will keep you turning the pages to see what becomes of Ana Ruiz.
In the Acknowledgments, Cruz notes that when she told her mother she was writing a novel based on her experience immigrating to the U.S. in the 1960s, she responded with surprise.
“Who would be interested in a story about a woman like me? It’s so typical.” No, senora, it’s more than typical; it’s universal.