Grappling with Destiny

Over the past few decades, many migrated to the United States in the hopes of having a taste of the American Dream. The promise of greener pastures and better opportunities in the Land of Milk and Honey is a strong selling point to everyone who were struggling to establish financial stability in their homelands. The story of migrants and refugees rushing to cross boundaries because of this promise has become ubiquitous. However, the reality of the American Dream is a far cry from the rosy lenses they were often advertised in. Most of the time these ugly realities start manifesting later. But while many face their doom, there are also those who persisted and eventually succeeded. Such can be gleaned from the story of the main character in Xochitl Gonzalez’s novel, Olga Dies Dreaming.

Gonzalez’s debut novel commenced in 2017 in New York City where the eponymous Olga Isabel Acevedo has established a reputation as a top-notch wedding events organizer. Born and raised in South Brooklyn, Olga was the daughter of two Puerto Rican immigrants and was resolute in her goal of becoming a success story. Her ambitiousness led her to become an entrepreneur sought after by the elite and celebrities. She has managed the wedding of some of the power brokers from Manhattan to Dallas to Palm Beach. It was a world of glamour that she was tiptoeing on. She fought for her dreams and became a successful businesswoman who has her own space, two huge achievements in a bustling metropolis like New York City. To the casual spectator, Olga, at the age of forty, was seen as a success story of the proverbial American Dream.

Olga has an older brother, Pedro “Prieto” Acevedo, whose story ran parallel to her story. Prieto was equally successful as her sister as he found his calling in New York City’s political scene where he is a rising star. From his humble beginnings as part of the city council, his skyrocketing popularity and his political elan brought him to Washington, D.C., after having been elected as his district’s representative. He rose above the din and became a prominent voice for the Latinx community he represented while, at the same time, a crusader for the rights of his countrymen in Puerto Rico. On the sly, Prieto was a single father who was raising a smart and witty daughter he had with his former wife. While there were definitely blimps along the way, in Prietp’s story we see a successful fulfillment of the American Dream.

“This means none of these things. Yes, you are bright. But you are also pretty and fair-skinned and speak in a way that doesn’t rub whiteskin the wrong way. Your admittance to this place is nothing more than a minuscule gesture – to reaffirm the myth of an American meritocracy, one that makes this school feel benevolent without damaging their elitist system. A system in which the only thing you’re certain to lose is your sense of self.”

~ Xochitl Gonzalez, Olga Dies Dreaming

To achieve that American Dream one must make several sacrifices along the way, as both Prieto and Olga would learn and as their stories have demonstrated. Along the way, they lost both of their parents. Their father has passed away after a long arduous battle with a malady. On the other hand, their mother Blanca, who was an activist and a revolutionary, abandoned them when they were still teenagers in order to fight for the causes of their homeland. In the absence of both parents, their maternal grandmother raised the two of them in her humble Sunset Home home. Growing up, the Acevedo siblings skirted around the gaping hole that these absences have left in the mantle of who they are.

As the novel started charting the adult lives of the Acevedo siblings, Gonzalez examined how these absences adversely affected them. The veneer of success that they have created for themselves started showing cracks that are potentially damaging and irreversible. In the process, Gonzalez built their psychological profile, providing the readers with an intimate peek into their interiors. Contrasting her ambitiousness was Olga’s growing dissatisfaction with her career. We read about the obstacles she had to face and the concessions she had to make in order to maintain a good relationship with the elite and her clientele. It seemed that success was finally catching up with her.

We also get to read about Olga and her romantic liaisons. Despite her age and the level of success she has achieved, Olga was single. She was constantly sailing in and out of relationships, including with some of her clients. None of these relationships worked out as planned as her lack of vulnerability kept her from getting more emotionally invested. For Olga, relationships should be kept at arm’s length, transactional at best. Things, however, were starting to look up, at least where romance was concerned, when Olga had a chance encounter with a realtor named Matteo. The chance encounter immediately blossomed into a promising romantic relationship. The undertones of romance provided the story with a new layer. But for the relationship to further flourish, Olga must grapple with her past, her provenance, and her heritage, things that she has been sweeping under the rug.

While Olga’s storyline provided the story with a romantic arc, Prieto’s storyline, on the other hand, provided the novel a political arc, politics being a ubiquitous element of contemporary American literature. Through Prieto, Gonzalez was able to capture the pressures that politicians face. Prieto found himself walking a tightrope as he had to balance the expectations of the different stakeholders while maintaining his popularity and the trust of his constituents. While he cared deeply for his constituents and their welfare, as a politician, Prieto also had to make several unpopular choices, choices he felt were best for everyone’s interest. Lurking in the corners were dark elements who go to lengths to corrupt the system and malign politicians for their personal gains. The corruption that was inherent in politics was vividly portrayed by Gonzalez. Prieto constantly found himself treading these dire straits.

“Started with the crack, then back to dope. He lost the strength to say no to temptations. And now, because of this weakness, he is being eaten by this disease. For years while this went on, I sacrificed my own goals and priorities to try and salvage his. In truth, I should have left right away. I didn’t fully comprehend, back then, that the only person who can chart your course is you. No individual can save another, certainly not anyone who doesn’t want to be saved.

~ Xochitl Gonzalez, Olga Dies Dreaming

Politics was a game of images and public perception, where even shreds of a public scandal were enough to end political ambitions. This balancing act reaches its climax where questions of integrity begin to surface. In all of their struggles, we see how they were adversely impacted by their mother’s abandonment. Beyond the personal impasses that both Prieto and Olga found themselves in, Olga Dies Dreaming grappled with a vast spectrum of subjects and themes. The novel was multilayered and extensively dealt with identity and the exploration of sexuality, particularly homosexuality. The novel also underlined substance abuse, sexual abuse, rape, and sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS. It was, in a way, the novel’s subtle message for the practice of safe sex. The novel also touched base on mental health. In conjunction with the novel exploring the quintessence of the American Dream, the novel also tackled the immigrant experience.

Another seminal element that continued to haunt the lives of the Acevedo siblings was the history of their homeland. Despite her abandonment, Blanca Acevedo’s presence loomed above her children. Interspersed in the novel were letters sent by Blanca to her children. This epistolary form was her means of keeping up with her children. It was also her means of reminding them of their heritage and the role they have to inevitably play in the realization of her, and consequentially, every revolutionary’s vision for Puerto Rico. When she abandoned her children, Blanca joined a group of activists called the Young Lords before eventually founding her own revolutionary organization called Pañuelos Negros. The underground group’s main goal was the liberation of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico was once an overseas territory of Spain but was ceded to the United States as part of the provisions of the 1898 Treaty of Paris. The Treaty marked the end of the Spanish-American War. What ensued was the tenuous relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. For over a century, Puerto Rico hovered between being a colony and a semi-state. In November 2020, Puerto Rico held a non-binding statehood referendum, in which 53% of the denizens favored statehood. While there are already house bills moving for Puerto Rico’s statehood, its future remains hanging in a thread. The novel’s discourse extended to the discussion of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), a law signed by President Barack Obama on June 30, 2016.

The story’s main action happened before, during, and after Hurricane Maria, a catastrophic category 5 hurricane that leveled Puerto Rico and most of the Caribbean nations. As Puerto Rico comes into grip with the damage caused by the hurricane, capitalists saw it as an opportunity. The evils of capitalism were captured by the novel. Its primary personification was Richard Eikenborn III, also known as Dick. Dick was Olga’s (former) lover and the CEO of a chain of hardware stores. He was also one of the first few who surveyed the damage caused by the hurricane. Along with his fellow vultures who were driven by greed, he saw it as an opportunity to enrich themselves.

“Your father was brilliant. A dreamer. An idealist. He was a wonderful lover and a wonderful father. I loved him madly. Yet, at the end of the day, I had to accept the choice in froent of me I could spend my time soothing his loneliness and hurt, trying to motivate him back into purpose, or I could spend my time working towards the liberation of oppressed people around the world. Both, you must understand, are expressions of love. The choice isn”t necessarily easy.”

~ Xochitl Gonzalez, Olga Dies Dreaming

The novel abounded with success stories of women, making it reverberate with feminist elements. But in this swirl of subjects and varying themes, the growth and development of the Acevedo siblings remained the novel’s primary concern. Their march towards taking over their own destiny was, however, marred by some questionable choices that they made, such as Prieto’s vote in favor of the PROMESA to show his resentment towards his mother. Blanca, for her part, was a deceitful and manipulative character who was vocal in her disappointment with her children’s success. She used her letters to mold her children into her own images of them. She even called them weak because they were not what she expected them to be. An equally deceitful character was Dick who objectified women, seeing their value only in how they will elevate his reputation. His misogyny and white privilege were appalling.

The tapestry of her debut novel was dexterously woven together by Gonzalez’s lyrical language. Her idyllic prose painted images in the readers’ minds effortlessly. She engaged her readers from the onset. But while her writing and storytelling were exhilarating, the novel falls on the weight of the ambition. The resolutions for some of the ethical concerns underscored in the novel were underwhelming if they were resolved at all. Some parts were left hanging and open-ended. For instance, the exploration of the sexuality of one character was contrived at best. Some subjects underscored were inconsequential in the grander scheme of things. While the ambition was admirable, even commendable, the overall impact was ephemeral. The story’s proclivity for repetitions also weighed down on the story.

Despite its flaws, Olga Dies Dreaming is a timely and relevant narrative that explored a score of seminal subjects. Its rich tapestry and its discourses covered a vast ground, including homosexuality, the horrors of colonialism, and the evils of capitalism. Xochitl Gonzalez also dealt with family dynamics, mental health, and sexual abuse. It was a multilayered debut novel that reverberated with undertones of romance and history. It dealt with a plethora of dark and complex subjects but it also offered rays of hope and sunlight. Needless to say, it was an ambitious undertaking carefully woven together by Gonzalez’s capable prose. It needed some tightening up to close those loose ends but as a debut novel, Olga Dies Dreaming holds a promising voice.

“It’s a myth about motherhood that the time in utero imbues mothers with a lifelong understanding of their children. Yes, they know their essences, this she didn’t doubt, but mothers are still humans who eventually form their own ideas of both who their kids are and who they think they should be. Inevitably there were disparities.”

~ Xochitl Gonzalez, Olga Dies Dreaming
Ratings

64%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 
17%
Writing (25%) – 
16%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

It was in late 2021 that I first encountered Xochitl Gonzalez and her debut novel, Olga Dies Dreaming. It has been receiving praises left and right, with many citing it as a highly-anticipated 2022 book release. Because of this, the book eventually piqued my interest. Just me jumping into yet another bandwagon. The book then made it into my own 2022 Books I Look Forward To List and, thankfully, I was able to obtain a copy of the book before the first quarter of the year ended. Without more ado, I delved into Gonzalez’s debut novel. I was that excited. At the start, I liked the novel, especially when Gonzalez was laying the landscape of the novel. What I found scintillating was the vast ground the novel covered; there were a lot of subjects explored. I loved learning about Puerto Rico and its history but these parts came intermittently. It was breathtaking but it was also this vastness that was the novel’s undoing. They were disjointed, with some not even adding any value to the story. This resulted in a fleeting impact. Yes, Blanca’s letters can be removed without adversely affecting the novel. Despite its blunders, I do commend the novel’s ambitiousness and Gonzalez’s storytelling.

Book Specs

Author: Xochitl Gonzalez
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 369
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

A blazing talent debuts with the tale of a status-driven wedding planner grappling with her social ambitions, absent mother, and Puerto Rican roots – all in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

It’s 2017, and Olga and her brother, Pedro “Prieto” Acevedo, are boldfaced names in their hometown of New York. Prieto is a popular congressman representing their gentrifying Latinx neighborhood in Brooklyn, while Olga is the tony wedding planner for Manhattan’s power brokers.

Despite their alluring public lives, behind closed doors, things are far less rosy. Sure, Olga can orchestrate the love stories of the 1 percent, but she can’t seem to find her own… until she meets Matteo, who forces her to confront the effects of long-held family secrets.

Olga and Prieto’s mother, Blanca, a Young Lord turned radical, abandoned her children to advance a militant political cause, leaving them to be raised by their grandmother. Now, with the winds of hurricane season, Blanca has come barreling back into their lives.

Set against the backdrop of New York City in the months surrounding the most devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico’s history, Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming is a story that examines political corruption, familial strife, and the very notion of the American dream – all while asking what it really means to weather a storm.

About the Author

Xochitl Gonzalez was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York City to a family of immigrants. Both of her parents were activists in the Socialist Workers Party. She attended Edward R. Murrow Public High School in Brooklyn before earning a scholarship to Brown University. In 1999, she completed her Bachelor of Arts in art history and visual art. She earned her master’s in Program, Art Administration at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development in 2002.

Post-graduate school, Gonzalez worked as an entrepreneur, wedding planner, fund-raiser, tarot card reader, and consultant for different companies. IN 2019, she pursued a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and the recipient of the Michener Copernicus Prize in Fiction. She was the winner of the 2019 Disquiet Literary Prize and her works appeared in publications such as BustleVogue, and The Cut.

In 2022, her debut novel, Olga Dies Dreaming was published to critical acclaim. Gonzalez is currently writing and co-executive producing a drama adaptation based on her novel. She is also a contributor to The Atlantic.

Gonzalez is currently residing in her hometown of Brooklyn.