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Conquistadora Hardcover – Deckle Edge, July 12, 2011

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"Red Skies" by Kay Bratt
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Editorial Reviews Review

Francisco Goldman Reviews Conquistadora

Francisco Goldman is the author of Say Her Name, The Art of Political Murder, and The Ordinary Seaman. He lives in New York City and Mexico City.

Conquistadora is many vivid things all at once, and for the reader, they happen in your body, imagination and soul. It’s a swashbuckling adventure, visceral and ardent; it’s a historical novel so seamlessly told that you don’t realize your heart’s pounding even as your brain’s amassing a wealth of fascinating new knowledge. This is a book that is like that one small island you’ve been longing for since the great adventure and pirate stories of childhood. But the island is real, and this novel tells a real story--an important piece of history--that has never been told before. It’s a story about Puerto Rico, Esmeralda Santiago’s birthplace, and it shows us the island in a way that we’ve never seen before.

Here also is a portrait of characters I came to know and to care about, far from the usual New World stock cast of rapacious and greedy Spanish plantation owners chasing after slave and Creole girls. I was especially intrigued from the start by Ana, whom we first meet as a teenager in a convent in Seville in 1826, bent over the yellowing pages of some journals. (I have an established proclivity for historical novels that begin in convents!) Ana’s story, as every feisty convent girl’s life story should, begins and ends with rebellion: those journals belong to an ancestor of hers who journeyed to Puerto Rico with Ponce de Leon, and when Ana travels there just after her eighteenth birthday, she is a señorita de buena familia rebelling against expectations--of her class, her gender, and the time period. By 1865, she’s rich: a wealthy plantation owner on the island. She’s lost none of her fire. But when the slaves on whom her sugarcane business was built catch the winds of change when Lincoln is elected in the US, she may lose it all. In the decades in between, Ana loves and loses, and finds her true home and her destiny. Puerto Rico, like many tropical “paradises,” turns out to be not the fantasy she’d dreamed on, but a harsh land with harsh realities--a place that rewards only the toughest. The surprising Ana is an irresistible heroine despite the history she carries. She is a woman of her time, for good or ill. A woman who by the end of this sweeping story, comes to define her life not just by all that she has conquered but also all that she has lost. Most importantly, she lives in the reader’s imagination.

Conquistadora is a novel that surpassed my every expectation. It brings a hitherto unknown swath of history alive through great storytelling and narrative verve.

Esmeralda Santiago has written a brilliant and blazingly alive novel, as engrossing and just plain fun as any I have read in a long while.


“An enthralling family saga interlaced with meticulously researched details of how the Caribbean economy of the day sustained itself through slave labor. . . . Steely Ana—think Scarlett O’Hara with jet black hair—won’t let hurricanes, cholera or even outright revolution keep her from turning a profit raising [sugar] cane. Santiago uses her larger-than-life character to illuminate a pivotal moment in the history of the Western hemisphere. . . . Four stars."
—Sue Corbett, People

“Gloriosa Ana María de los Ángeles Larragoity Cubillas Nieves de Donostia—Ana for short—is slight for a Spanish aristocrat, and unfashionably dark-skinned. In convent school in the 1830s, having eccentrically buried her not-so-pretty nose in the journal of a conquistador, she decides to become one, after a fashion, herself. . . . A decades-long story about marriage, slavery, and calculated choices—Ana makes an unspoken, unnatural pact with her young husband and his twin brother—Conquistadora is a splendid expedition into colonial history complete with enrapturing suspense to the very end.”
—Celia McGee, O the Oprah Magazine 

“Remarkable . . . [An] unpredictable and soaring story [by] an author in full command . . . Santiago encapsules an island’s history in the splendid tapestry of Ana’s boldly imagined life [and] joins a stellar line-up of Latin American authors who have brought to literary life the maverick women of Spanish colonial times, most notably Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel . . . Santiago has crafted this elegantly written story from a bountiful imagination that blossomed from conversations with her parents, who grew up in and near sugar plantations; and dogged research into the most intricate details of aristocracy in Seville and colonial life in Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York. . . . Historical lessons abound, but pathos and authenticity keep one glued to the tale. . . . The indomitable Ana has been compared by early reviewers to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. [She is] the flawed but ultimately admirable woman through which Santiago narrates the complex story of a nation’s beginnings. In Santiago’s hands, Ana is a woman to remember and Puerto Rico a country to cherish.”
—Fabiola Santiago, The Miami Herald 
“An epic beach read . . . Santiago sets her new book in 19th-century Spain, where her young heroine, Ana Larragoity Cubillas, discovers the diaries of an ancestor who traveled with Ponce de Léon. Fascinated by tales of gold nuggets and caribe warriors, Ana makes her way to Puerto Rico with the help of handsome, devious twins—both of whom land up in her bed. Once there, Ana finds her passion running a sugar plantation where love, disease, and revolt threaten to destroy it all.”
—Kimberly Cutter, Marie Claire

“Santiago has created a ferociously seductive character. By day, headstrong Ana Cubillas is a well-heeled 19th-century Spanish teenager . . . By night, she dreams of emulating her conquistador ancestor and turning her back on ‘country, family and custom’ to make her fortune. . . . Read this absorbing, impeccably researched novel for its lusty history and for the way Santiago’s narrative constantly surprises—just as its protagonist does, confronting the gender limitations of her day.”
—Meredith Maran, More

“In 1844, a bride sails to Puerto Rico to help run her in-laws’ plantation. There, she battles heat, disease, and the cruelty of slavery—and comes out on top, defying convention at every turn.”
Good Housekeeping

“Santiago brings passion, color, and historical detail to this Puerto Rican Gone with the Wind, featuring a hard-as-nails heroine more devoted to her plantation than to any of the men in her life . . . Ana grows up the willful daughter of aristocratic parents during the waning years of Spain’s colonial era. [She is] a not-so-innocent convent girl who marries her best friend’s fiancé’s twin brother, then heads to Puerto Rico without her friend, but with both twins in tow. The young men intend to make their fortunes, but it is Ana who has the savvy and determination to persevere through hurricanes, slave revolts, cholera and any other challenge the island has to offer. . . Santiago makes Caribbean history come alive through characters as human as they are iconic. The richness of her imagination and the lushness of her language will serve saga enthusiasts well, and she provides readers a massive panorama of plantation life—plus all you could ever want to know and more about growing sugar cane.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Extraordinary . . . a historical novel set in 19th Puerto Rico, featuring a high-handed, strong-willed woman determined to escape her boring upper-class future in Spain. When twin brothers inherit a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico, Ana marries them (who can tell them apart?), and they embark on what for the brothers is a lark, but for Ana is serious business. From the start, she takes to the land and the work of processing cane in the Caribbean, keeping the slaves inherited with the property and adding to their number over the years. She becomes the very image of a conquering hero: implacable, outspoken, demanding. Her husbands languish and fade while Ana runs Hacienda los Gemelos without their help. The issues of social caste, slavery, and sex roles make this a fascinating read. It’s an outstanding story, full of pathos, tropical sensuality, and violence—but it also poses uncomfortable moral questions readers are forced to consider . . . Storytelling genius . . . Conquistadora is a book-group must.”
—Jen Baker, Booklist (starred review)

“What do you get when you drop the author of When I Was Puerto Rican into a steamy, sultry stew of 19th century island intrigue? You get Conquistadora, an imaginative re-imagining of things from a strong-willed woman’s point-of-view. You also get one helluva historical epic.”
—John Hood, NBC Miami Niteside
“A grand romantic adventure tale, complete with plenty of sex and violence [and] satisfying richness . . . Santiago doesn’t ignore the political and economic realities of Ana’s life. . . . The novel is loaded with details of life on a sugar plantation.”
—Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch

“The multitalented author of When I Was Puerto Rican offers a big, bold novel about life on a Caribbean sugar plantation in the mid-19th century. Ana Cubillas, the descendant of Latin American conquistadors, is unhappy with the confined life of a young woman in Spain. She marries Ramon Argoso and encourages him and his twin, Inocente, to take over their family’s plantation in Puerto Rico. So begins the saga of Ana’s determination to revive the plantation in the face of all obstacles, from hurricanes to cholera epidemics to slave revolts. Is Ana an admirable example of female endurance, or does her relentless ambition only bring tragedy to her family? Can we have any sympathy for someone whose success comes from the backbreaking slavery of others? These are the questions Santiago poses in this lively, well-researched historical novel. With drama, adventure, and even a bit of magical realism, Conquistadora may remind readers of Isabel Allende’s novels of Latin America. Highly recommended.”
—Leslie Patterson, Library Journal

“The American South had Scarlett O’Hara as its Civil War antiheroine . . . In fiction, plantation mistresses have tended to be either unbridled despots or demure creatures who stay in the Great House . . . Santiago plays with, then capsizes, these caricatures in Conquistadora, set in mid-19th-century Puerto Rico. . . . But Santiago’s plantation mistress isn’t a shrew who derives sadistic pleasure from flogging her slaves. Nor is she their ministering angel . . . Ana is something much more elusive and contradictory. She delegates the flogging, but flinches when the slaves screams. [And she] is a feminist before her time. . . . The book’s strength is its Rubik’s Cube portrait of Ana, an unconventional, ambitious woman whose attitudes toward children, slaves and lovers perplex and engross. . . . Ana is emotionally intelligent enough to imagine how slaves might feel, to understand their longing for freedom, yet ruthless enough to use and punish them in order to flourish herself. Neither white witch nor angel, she is convincing despite her contradictions—indeed, because of them. . . . Conquistadora [is] a guided tour of the history of sugar and empire. Santiago takes us through events of the past as if they were rooms, navigating the cholera epidemic that ravaged Puerto Rico in the 1850s here, depicting the secret abolitionist societies active in San Juan there, and over all, divertingly evoking a place that was one of the last holdouts for slavery in the Americas.”
—Gaiutra Bahadur, The New York Times Book Review

Conquistadora is an expertly researched novel that fuses Antillean/Puerto Rican history and a spellbinding and action-packed storyline that will surprise and dazzle its readers. . . . A Pandora’s box of triumphs and tragedies unfolds and will keep you on the edge of your seat. . . . A crown jewel of Puerto Rican literature.”
—Charlie Vázquez, Being Latino

"If, as the proverb goes, history is written by the hunters, then Esmeralda Santiago has imagined history as written from the point of view of the lions. A remarkable story for its detail, imagination, meticulous research, and wisdom, this is history written by a lion at the height of her powers....

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (July 12, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307268322
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307268327
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #898,045 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

84 of 88 people found the following review helpful By E. Kennen on May 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Born in a time when ladies of Spain's high society are expected to be prim and proper, petite main character Ana is an unwelcome force of nature. So unwelcome that her parents abscond her to a convent school (where she meets her best friend and lover, the angelic Elena) and her grandparent's estate (where the history of her ancestors sets her mind and passions on fire).

To Ana, the future is a prison of corsets, parlor halls, and disapproving glances. She hatches a desperate - yet adventuresome - plan to secure her freedom. But to make things work, Ana has to give up bigger and bigger pieces of her soul until the admirably headstrong young girl becomes a cold and twisted warden-- to her husband, her plantation slaves, and ultimately even herself.

Starting with a brief look at the indigenous Boricuas of Puerto Rico and ending with the impact of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Santiago seamlessly blends history throughout the story. My husband and I found CONQUISTADORA to be a true page-turner.

The book is not without its flaws, however: Santiago sometimes abruptly introduces a new point of view for reasons that become apparent only much later (or sometimes not at all). While her extensive character biographies are always interesting from a historic perspective, they are strangely lacking in character development.

The main characters are either irredeemably flawed or underdeveloped. While I found myself vested in knowing what happened next, if you need someone to root for, this book may not be for you. Some people have been bothered by the "magic realism" in the latter half of the book, but to me it seemed true to life that the characters would believe that one of the slaves would be a seer.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Kindred VINE VOICE on May 19, 2011
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The most cliché ridden reviews always contain the phrase `sweeping epic'... so imagine how embarrassed I am to begin this review by stating that this is very much a sweeping epic. My apologies.

I feel as if I just spent several days in the sweltering heat and dangerous surroundings of a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico in the middle of the nineteenth century. The writing is lush and evocative and yet words are used sparingly, no pages of chatter describing every leaf and sunset. Very admirable in a novel of this depth. Even more admirable is the unflinching view of how that sugar was harvested and the human toll such an endeavor was thought of as necessary. These people aren't cardboard cutouts that always do the right thing or even the smart thing. It gives an insight into what these plantation owners told themselves to continue demeaning and abusing their slaves, the rationalizations of how they were actually helping them, not hurting them. Though of course there are the characters that simply don't care. And yet, they knew the day would come when everything would change and feared it. Rightly so in fact. People with nothing to lose can be dangerous indeed.

It's not an easy book to read full of suffering and tragedy but I was mesmerized and glad to see a peek into an unfamiliar culture. Much of the historical fiction I've read happens in Europe or America. It was great to see a novel use a different culture. I did stumble a bit over the occasional passages written in what I assume is Spanish but not enough to throw me out of the story and usually the words or sentences are explained in English without resorting to dry interpretations.

The story is far from over and I'm looking forward to more and hope it comes soon.
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69 of 90 people found the following review helpful By John Jorgensen VINE VOICE on July 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I've read many bad books long past the point where I knew I wouldn't get any real enjoyment from them because, as both a reader and a reviewer, I feel a desire for closure and completion in anything I read. So believe me when I say that I tried my hardest to get through this book, but I wound up skimming through/skipping over large sections altogether. (That by the way is the reason it's a two-star review instead of one-star: I have to admit the possibility, however remote, that I missed something really good. I find that hard to imagine.) It's like the book was actually resisting my attempts to read it! And, in a battle of wills, it won.

It's just such turgid prose. The author very obviously intended this to be some sort of grandiose historical romantic epic, and the promotional material--including, on the back of the advance reader edition, an actual letter from the publishing house's vice president about how awesome the book is, something I've never seen before and found so distasteful I was afraid to read the book at all and found I couldn't help but look for chances to disprove its declarations of how the story would affect me emotionally--have been very quick to rank this book among the masterpieces of historical fiction. Such a status is earned by excellent writing and awarded by critical and commercial acclaim, not attained through self-serving author/publisher fiat.

And the book does not earn the praises it heaps upon itself, certainly. The protagonist is annoying, not so much for anything she does--she's really little more than the stereotype of a spunky, unconventional woman who's got more moxy than her male relatives and must battle to make her own way in a man's world--but for the way the story sets her up as some star-crossed heroine.
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