How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents
by Julia Alvarez
I was very interested in this book group pick (I read it for The Nook, my beloved online book group) and enjoyed aspects of it very much. It is the story of the Garcia de la Torre family and their journey as immigrants from the Dominican Republic. It is arranged in an unusual way, starting from the present day and going sort of backward in time, but is not really done in flashbacks or dream sequences. It simply reads backwards, with the characters getting younger. It is also unconventional in that the voice changes from third to first person at different times. Sometimes this unusual structure was a little jarring, but I always like to give an author the benefit of the doubt and assume, find or make up good reasons why things are they way they are. This time, I decided that by keeping the reader a little uncomfortable and wondering just what's going on, the author was able to give us a little taste of what it is like to be a whole, intelligent, fully functioning human being who suddenly finds themselves completely undone by their environment. Such is the case with immigrants to another country-I think they must wonder at times (which actually the book comes right out and says) how the heck they got to this moment of confusion and clumsiness. I'll bet they wish they could just flip back a few pages and re-read to get their bearings back.
Having relatives by marriage who are first generation Americans made me look at this book somewhat through their eyes and many things rang true with experiences my family members have shared with me. I really liked the richness of the language and the insight into what life was like before this family moved to the US. I liked the way the complexity of the family dynamic is portrayed. Other readers may think the characters are too predictable, but in my mind they are iconic, representing a lot of cultural truths. For example, the mother adopts the middle ground. She is sort of a translator between the old and new countries. Her husband functions successfully as a doctor in America, but has a hard time accepting that his daughters are more American than Dominican in their behavior and choices. The daughters see the dad as archaic and stuck in the old country at times. The mom keeps pretty busy trying to help the different generations see where the other is coming from. That is usually the situation any mother finds herself in, and to add to the normal complications of family life the difficulties of cultural ambivalence and confusion would be maddening. I thought this mother handled things pretty well.
I'm not sure I'll choose anything else by this author, but this was a good read. It made me think about what it means to be an American, especially since I have immigrant ancestors only 3 generations back. My husband has them 2 generations back. We are a nation of immigrants, and to continue to see these individuals as aliens rather than as symbolic of our own stories does both our brave ancestors and the brave new pioneers all around us a profound disservice.