In Xochitl Gonzalez’s vibrant and raw debut, Olga Dies Dreaming, love and family drama crash into politics.
Proudly Nuyorican (Puerto Rican New Yorker) Olga and her brother, Pedro “Prieto” Acevedo, faced some serious challenges when they were growing up in their diverse, working-class neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. They were devastated when their uncompromising, demanding mother abandoned them to chase revolution, and again when their troubled father, who loved them unconditionally, died. And yet, all told, Olga and Prieto were fortunate. As driven, bright children, they had each other and a fiercely loving grandmother as a parental surrogate, and they grew up to become complicated, charismatic adults.
In the summer of 2017, at the start of the novel, Olga and Prieto should both be in a good place. They have thriving, high-profile careers and a chaotic, mostly supportive extended family. However, this ostensibly glittering present is overshadowed by the past and divided loyalties. Identity is complex and slippery for both Olga and Prieto, and individual successes don’t negate that. A new love is a tantalizing possibility for Olga, but with their family history, it’s a dream she’s never dared to have.
Olga and Prieto are both haunted by the devastating decline and exploitation of the island where they’ve never lived but always felt connected to. They’ve built more conventional lives than their mother, who chose the fight for Puerto Rican independence over her family, but both siblings remain conflicted. As a congressman, Prieto is the pride of the family, but he has a mandate to advocate for his largely Puerto Rican constituency, and a lot of people don’t think he’s lived up to the hype. Meanwhile, as a luxury wedding planner catering to wealthy New Yorkers, Olga’s chosen profession serves her quest for stability and security but is at odds with who she is and what she values. Highly educated and hypertalented, she’s an artist and a fierce Puertorriqueña, and although she’s great at her job, people in the fiercely status-conscious New York scene still treat her like she’s “the help.”
The real center of the story, which sometimes moves between the past (often in the form of letters) and the present, is Olga and Prieto’s reckoning with the tensions and contradictions that have made them who they are. The siblings have to come to terms with their identities and their mother, and what it would look like to authentically achieve something approximating the ”American dream” or maybe just happiness.
That’s equally out of reach for Olga and Prieto as they contend with the intersections of love (romantic and familial), identity, politics and history. With so many different moving parts and conflicts, Gonzalez’s story sometimes seems overstuffed, with writing that isn’t quite as beautiful as the journey. But the characters and the issues they’re grappling with are deeply compelling. Olga Dies Dreaming delivers a roller coaster’s worth of beautiful highs and lows. All told, it’s an experience worth savoring.