Contemporary Fiction Views: Family and becoming one’s own true self
Olga is a successful high-end wedding planner, daughter of Puerto Rican activists, and sister of a media star congressman. What’s most important to her right now? Some dodgy paperwork to present her cousin with expensive, heirloom-worthy linen napkins at her upcoming wedding.
So, is Olga Dies Dreaming, the new novel by Xochitl Gonzalez, a frothy tale about a woman and her familia? Let’s just say it has a lot to say about family dynamics.
Olga and her brother, Prieto, were left by their mother, now a fugitive activist fighting for Puerto Rican independence. Their father, a Vietnam vet, died of AIDS as a broken-hearted junkie who loved music and his children, but who loved the needle more.
Their grandmother raised them with unconditional love. Both are accomplished, successful adults who are close to each other. Of course they are both hiding pain. And as the story deepens, the reader learns about the what and why of their pain. And how it affects what happens in the rest of the novel.
Olga has shut her heart up. She has an ongoing relationship with the rich owner of a chain of hardware stores, but she isn’t in love with him. Olga had one serious boyfriend as a young girl. Reggie is now a wildly rich music mogul with diverse investments and a renewed interest in his own Puerto Rican heritage. And now there is a new man who has appeared. Matteo is his own true self, even when it comes to admitting his flaws and fears.
Prieto is divorced and has a young teenage daughter. He’s been hiding his homosexuality from even himself, but that’s no longer an option. He is afraid of how his family will react, even more than the voters or the media.
Both sister and brother have received letters from their mother over the years, although she’s never visited or even called them. She exhorts them to remember who they are and to not sell out. Nothing they do is ever good enough, because they are not as committed to her cause as she is.
By the time the personal, professional, racial and cultural aspects of their story propel each other to some potentially disastrous decisions, it is difficult to not be worried for both Olga and Prieto. It’s easy to see how badly things can do. So easy to see that it would be understandable if one decided to put the book down and, say, listen to music for a spell.
But it is so worthwhile to return to the novel. To find out what happens. And so see what happens when even people who love each other acknowledge that they haven’t been brave enough to be completely honest in the past, but they’re trying now.
At one point, Olga wonders about someone who collects so many certain objects that the word hoarding is apt. What pain caused that hole in the heart that the objects are an attempt to fill it back up? What Olga doesn’t know at the time is that she, too, has a hole in her heart. Every main character in the novel does. And the ways in which they seek to fill those holes show both how loving and how wounded, how willing to heal and how wounding, people can be.
Olga Dies Dreaming is a fascinating look at how the personal is part of the larger story — of a family, of a culture, or a heritage that all can serve as foundational and supportive for someone to become their best true self.