How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is an interesting book, not only as a study of a single family’s history as immigrants and political dissidents, but also because it reveals a lot about the Dominican Republic, a country I’ve never really paid much attention to before.
Like Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, the story is told through a series of short stories and vignettes, rather than an overarching plot, and I think this device works better here. The stories are longer and less disparate, they have a wider focus, on the family as a whole rather than just a single individual, and there seems to be more direction to the story. In a twist on the format however, the story is told in reverse. The first story is when Yolande, one of the daughters in her thirties has returned to her home country, and the last is long before the daughters were even conscious of the idea of emigrating.
As I say, I really enjoyed the book, mostly because it revealed a lot about the Dominican Republic that I didn’t know before, particularly the Dictatorship of Trujillo, which you tend not to hear about in the UK media, in contrast to the Duvaliers in neighbouring Haiti. The story that occurs directly before their emigration (chronologically speaking), when Papi is almost arrested by the secret police and the girls, without really knowing what’s happening, try to protect him, is particularly tense and intriguing. As the Dominican years are the more interesting side of the story, in contrast to the first half, which is concerned more with the immigrant experience (which I think, with books like Ghana Must Go and Brooklyn Heights, I’ve read a sufficient amount of recently), it takes quite a while to get into the book properly.
That’s not to say that the earlier, older chapters aren’t interesting or worth reading; I thought the Garcia Girls as teenagers were particularly compelling, or rather the situations they found themselves in as they became more Americanised in contrast to their Papi, who was very much set in his Dominican ways, their Mami who is stuck between the two worldviews. There’s also the interesting point that in the Dominican Republic, Mami’s family are essentially aristocracy, whereas when they move to New York, their life is far less prominent, and the struggles to overcome this. There’s also a rather interesting chapter in which Sofia, the youngest daughter, has been sent back to live with her Aunts as a punishment. On visiting after a year abroad, her sisters are horrified to discover she’s in what they perceive as a rather toxically gender imbalanced relationship with an illegitimate cousin, but one which none of the islanders, including Sofia (who has essentially been indoctrinated away from her more liberal American view) see a problem with. The resolution perhaps came too quickly, I’d have liked this chapter to have been more detailed, but as a snapshot of international feminist thought in the 70s and 80s, it’s a really interesting read.
It’s rather that the adult girls’ problems, divorce, childbirth, paternal jealousy, and mental health issues are, for harder to relate to. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem, perhaps, if these segments were better developed. If we knew more about the Garcias before finding out about their mid-life crises, or if the fallout of the crises was more central to the plot, then it might be more engaging. As it is, I wasn’t really sure what point Alvarez was trying to make. Were the problems symptomatic of middle-aged Dominican women living in the US, middle-aged immigrant women living in the US, or simply middle-aged women living in the US? The lack of certainty perhaps undermined the issue somewhat.
I keep using the word interesting, and I think that best sums up what I thought of the book as a whole, it’s interesting rather than enjoyable. I think perhaps knowing so little about the Dominican Republic, combined with the fact I’ve read a number of other immigrant narratives recently lessened the impact of that side of the book on me, although How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents predates all the other such books I’ve read with similar themes.