I had such mixed feelings about “Olga Dies Dreaming” by Xochitl Gonzalez. On the one hand, it’s a beautifully written book, with simply gorgeously crafted sentences, an interesting protagonist, and important insights into the Puerto Rican independence movement as well as the immigrant experience. On the other hand, I felt as if the plot was trying to do too much and grew muddled from the middle onwards.
This is the story of Olga Acevedo, a wedding planner for wealthy clients who has reached a certain level of celebrity in her hometown of New York, appearing on morning shows giving lifestyle advice; and Pietro, her brother, a Congressman who’s done important work for his people but also made questionable ethical decisions.
It is also a love letter to New York, the New York as second-generation Puerto Rican families experience it instead of the New York you most often see in movies and musicals. Through Olga’s eyes, I saw all the sights, smells, changes and joys of her neighborhood, a New York where you could still find yourself in a small town among a tight-knit community that stood by you no matter what.
At first you think it is going to be a contemporary women’s novel or romance, with the single Olga unlucky in her love life and lost in her career journey. But then the plot complicates, converging on a backdrop of political intrigue. This is also the story of Olga and Pietro and their complicated relationship with their mother, who abandoned their family when they were teenagers to pursue independence for Puerto Rico at any cost and becomes radicalized toward the violent kind of revolution. We never actually meet their mother, except through passive-aggressive, manipulative letters that she sends them throughout their lives to let them know she’s still watching.
I think in the end we were supposed to admire Blanca, the mother, and all the sacrifices that must be made for resistance and revolution, but I did not. I liked her the least out of everybody in the book. I found her to be an interesting villain, a character I hated for the way that she used everyone she encountered in order to further her own agenda; which, though a worthy cause, didn’t necessarily make her a good person. That’s the kind of villain I like, though, someone who’s not complicated simply because they’re sympathetic.
I loved maybe the first half of the book, which I found joyous and prescient; and then I felt like it lost its thread and tried to do too much with too many themes. It became not just a book about Olga and Pietro and their awakening as people independent from their mother’s psychological tricks, but the Puerto Rican-American experience as a whole. I’m still giving it four stars because I did think it was well written even so, but I have some complicated feelings about this book. An intriguing debut to say the least.