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OLGA DIES DREAMING
By Xochitl Gonzalez
What is the American Dream these days, anyway? The term, as coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, described an idealistic vision of the United States as a true meritocracy, where opportunity was equally available to all. Ninety years and a whole lot of systemic racism and widening class divisions later, we have good reason to cast a more jaundiced eye on the concepts of opportunity and equality in this country, and, given how even the bootstrappiest of billionaires can’t seem to find satisfaction in any amount of hoarded wealth, it’s worth wondering what, exactly, we’re supposed to be dreaming of.
Olga Acevedo, the title character in Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut novel, “Olga Dies Dreaming,” struggles mightily with this question. The daughter of Puerto Rican activists — a mother who vanished into an underground life as a revolutionary when Olga was 12 and a father who became a heroin addict and died of AIDS — Olga was raised by her grandmother in Brooklyn, excelled at New York public schools and graduated from an unnamed Ivy League college. As the book opens in summer 2017, she is, at 39, a sought-after high-end wedding planner. Her older brother, Prieto, is a progressive congressman and divorced father who also happens to be a closeted gay man, a secret that has left him vulnerable to blackmail from nefarious (and very much not progressive) real estate developers.
Although she is, on paper, a self-made success story, Olga is also stuck and depressed. After a brief and disastrous foray into reality television, she has “realized that she’s allowed herself to become distracted from the true American dream — accumulating money — by its phantom cousin, accumulating fame.” But the work of manifesting rich people’s matrimonial whims, even though she’s figured out how to profit from it, has come to seem “tedious and stupid.” Disdainful of her clients and frustrated by the financial disadvantage of hewing to strict ethics, Olga enters into some shady business dealings: padding orders for liquor and caviar and selling the surplus. She does this even though she’s noticed that money seems to bring her clients little contentment, that “simply existing seemed an immense burden to them.” She has no real friends, seeks loveless sex with an ultrarich libertarian whose daughter’s wedding she once planned, and, though she’s enmeshed with and supported by her extended family in Brooklyn, is otherwise sleepwalking through a life as confined as her brother’s.
Olga’s mother, Blanca, has never returned to see her children in almost 30 years, but she manages to keep close tabs from afar, sending periodic letters full of tedious ideological instruction and meddlesome guilt trips. To Olga, 25 and in love, she wrote, “I won’t try to convince you that this guy isn’t worthy of you. I remember being young and thinking I understood love, too.” When Prieto moved home to tend to his dying father, she scolded, “Leave these days, these last years of his life, in a trash can.”
The complex influence wielded by the absent Blanca forms one of the novel’s most nuanced and interesting through-lines. Both Acevedo siblings are under her thrall and desperate to prove themselves worthy, to somehow, impossibly, show her they are more than just burdens to be sloughed off. But they are also engaged in lifelong rebellions against her: Olga with her materialism and Prieto via his role in what his mother sees and deplores as a ruthless colonialist government.
Olga has only been to Puerto Rico once, but the island and its diaspora dominate and complicate her identity and experience, especially when Hurricanes Irma and Maria strike during the course of the book and elicit, at best, a horrifyingly indifferent federal emergency response. Gonzalez is clearly concerned with making sure her readers understand the historical injustices that have befallen Puerto Rico — and their contemporary consequences, which creates a novelistic challenge. How to illuminate a presumably poorly informed (I’m guilty) audience about complex sociopolitical realities without also knocking readers out of what John Gardner called fiction’s “vivid and continuous dream”?
Gonzalez’s main strategies are to allow Olga’s mother to edify the reader along with her children through her letters and to have characters speak to each other in blocks of exposition. (“In the ’80s and ’90s the government, in cooperation with complicit Puerto Rican sellouts on the island, systemically stymied a strong and growing independence movement,” Olga’s ex-boyfriend tells her as he launches into three pages of mansplaining.)
These lectures get the job done, but, along with frequent detours into back story, sometimes feel like a frustrating countercurrent to the momentum of the book’s present, ongoing plot. Olga falls in love! Prieto must grapple with various reckonings! Blanca begins to surface and is up to something big! When the novel turns its attention to storytelling, it is most affecting and most alive.
Liberation is at the heart of “Olga Dies Dreaming.” The story’s driving tension derives from questions of how to break free: from a mother’s manipulations, from shame, from pride indistinguishable from fear, from the traumatic burden of abandonment, from colonial oppression, from corrosive greed. The book’s title is an allusion to the poem “Puerto Rican Obituary,” by Pedro Pietri, which contains the lines “Olga / dies dreaming of a five dollar raise.” But Gonzalez’s Olga will not go meekly to such a fate. Sometimes we must free ourselves — even from dreams.