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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez Plume paperback Paperback – January 1, 1992
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The book is comprised of a series of related vignettes that move backwards in time. They are written with such a degree of verisimilitude that I suspect they are largely autobiographical. Some of the vignettes are more interesting than others. I personally enjoyed "The Rudy Elmenhurst Story" and "Daughter of Invention" best. Others struck me as superfluous fluff - a quick way to add padding to a few really well-written essays so the whole lot could get published as a novel.
When I finished the book, I felt neither inspired nor annoyed. It was entertaining at times, boring at others. It certainly wasn't a waste of time, but I doubt I'll remember it in a year. Upon finishing the last page, I just blinked a few times and put it back on the shelf.
The Garcia family lived a rather lavish lifestyle in the Dominican Republic, but when troubles came up between Carlos disagreeing with the military dictatorship, they were left with the option to escape. Alvarez presents problems mostly centered around cultural differences. Ranging from language barriers to Carlos and Laura quickly inferring their girls need to be sent to mental hospitals, there is an obvious gap between the way of live the parents know of compared to the girls.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is not the easiest book to read and comprehend fully. As I have briefly mentioned, there are stories from various points in their lives from when they are young, to when they are married and have kids. As I did enjoy the original layout of the book moving back in time, it sometimes was easy to forget what the point of the plot exactly was since it was a combination of many stories not necessarily relating to one another. Due to knowledge about the book prior to reading, I was able to connect the dots before those parts were actually stated in the chapters. Additionally, I wish as though some of the stories delved further into detail enabling the audience to understand and feel more empathy with each individual character. It jumped around so much, it was hard to remember which sister was who since they all dealt with very serious problems at some point throughout their life whether that was anorexia, or not being in contact with their Dad for a long period of time. In my opinion, it would helpful if the book and it’s stories were generally organized by character. Considering the root of the book stemmed from the family needing to flee the Dominican Republic, I felt Alvarez was lacking historical context to provide the readers. I personally thought the novel would consist of more history leading up to their escape to set the scene for an attention grabbing section.
I was expecting a certain kind of ending where Alvarez would leave the audience with a shocking piece of news considering the book remained pretty steady in terms of my reactions and emotions to events, yet I was pretty disappointed with the ending. I did realize I had finished it, I suppose the point of the book was to lay out short stories and have the audience put the puzzle pieces together, but I wouldn’t say there was one point when I was really engaged with the plot over another, feeling like the book could have had more substance to it. In brief, even though the book did not entirely meet my expectations, I still thought How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez was fascinating to hear a real-life story about migrants from the Dominican Republic having to familiarize themselves with the culture of the United States.
Top international reviews
The Garcia girls - Carla, Sandra (Sandi), Yolanda (YoYo) and Sofia (Fifi) grow up in the Dominican Republic in a wealthy household, but their idyllic childhood comes to an end when their doctor father is threatened by the Trujillo dictatorship and the family is forced to move to New York. In New York, the sisters try to adapt to the American way of life in the Swinging 1960s and politically and socially conscious 1970s, to the suspicion of their very traditional father. The girls end up leading very different lives. All four marry, three get divorced, two (Sandi and Yolanda) have breakdowns. The youngest, Sofia, marries a German, and thus incurs her father's everlasting suspicion. Yolanda becomes a writer and later a university teacher. And, however American they try to be, to a greater or lesser degree all the sisters feel the pull back to their beloved Island, and the life they left there, and their memories will not leave them.
Alvarez tells the story in 'reverse order' - the first part deals with the Garcia girls as adults, including Yolanda's return to the Dominican Republic to visit family, Sofia's relationship with her German husband, and Sandi and Yoyo's breakdowns; the second with their teenage and childhood experiences in the US, going further back in time with each chapter; and the final section with their memories of the Dominican Republic, starting with the decision to leave the island and going back through to early memories of Sandi and Yolanda - almost as if Alvarez is making the point that early childhood has proved the prime factor in shaping the girls' lives. The structure is very loose, almost as though the book is a series of linked short stories about the same characters, rather than a novel. There are some beautiful sections. Alvarez is also a poet, and this is apparent in her sumptuous descriptive language, particularly when she describes the Dominican Republic, and childhood memories. There are also some memorable scenes, including Yolanda's return to her native country and visit to elderly relatives, Yolanda's memories of her mother's attempts to become an inventor in their early days in New York, a birthday party the girls throw for their elderly father and Sandi's memories of childhood and of when she saw a sculptor at work in his studio. The narrative flicks between sisters and alights on certain points in their lives, missing a great deal out, and for me this was a major weakness in the book. I felt that the four sisters never quite got defined as individuals (except perhaps Yolanda, who Alvarez went on to write another book about) and that we never learnt quite enough about any of them or how their lives turned out. Carla and Fifi, in particular, were quite thinly defined and Alvarez only focused on them briefly. I also found that the 'reverse order' narrative left the book feeling slightly unfinished - for me, I would have liked a return to the present at the end to tie the story together. However, I did find that Alvarez's depictions of immigrant life in New York, and of four girls trying to adapt to a very different culture to their birth one, were moving and convincing, and I found the information about the Dominican Republic (about which I knew little) fascinating. I also liked the loving relationship (despite Carlos Garcia's conservatism) between the girls and their parents. An interesting read in all, and a quick one - I read it in a day - but I suspect there may be more content, and more detail of character in Alvarez's later novels, two of which are on my 'to read' pile.