Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

Someone once told me that there is a theory that the whole of a story is told in the opening few paragraphs of a book. I have taken this to heart and so was a little disappointed to read about wedding napkins, the type of linen they are made out of and how well they absorb spilt liquids. But of course, these are a signal that wealth and capitalism are going to be important elements in this story, and so they are.

Two siblings, Pietro and Olga, are raised by their grandmother and extended family in the Puerto Rican quarter of Brooklyn. Olga becomes a wedding planner and her brother a Congressman for the local area. They are both invested in their culture but have made their way in a wider America through sheer hard graft. And of course, they have secrets, secrets which start to become millstones around their necks until Hurricane Maria devastates Puerto Rica forcing them to rethink their lives.

I didn’t really know anything about Puerto Rica and so had to look it up because Olga frequently says that she is American and indeed PR does occupy an unusual space: it is an incorporated territory of the US – an island that is neither a sovereign state nor a US state. It is somewhere that slips between the cracks and that leaves it open to corruption and corporate greed particularly after the hurricane. So this is also a story about identity, the power of the elites and marginalisation of the poor and outsiders.

What really stood out for me, however, was the role of Olga and Pietro’s mother. When Olga was twelve her mother left them with their father to go and follow her own dreams and become a leader of a revolutionary group in PR. The children had no means of contacting her although she would send them letters, making it clear that she knew intimate details about their lives and usually letting them know how disappointed she was with them. When Olga left to go to university, intead of praising her, she sent the following:

These bourgeois institutions that do nothing but reaffirm that in a captialist society there are those annointed to rule and those born to serve. Do not confuse admission for a chance at power. This kind of college has no place, even if they offered you one of their precious ‘affirmative action’ spots. They do not want to teach your people’s history; they don’t want to read your people’s books. They see no value in our culture, or the culture of any minority people.


By the time I had read the first of these letters, I hated their mother. Her letters were manipulative, always critical and demanding, insisting that her children think like her even though she had abandonned them. Amongst all of the issues raised in the book, I think she is the engine of the story, sitting far away, pulling the strings of both siblings.

The book asks us to consider what being a mother means and how much people can expect of us if they left us when we were young. As with so many secret and hurtful ties, they often improve with daylight and eventually can be cut.

If you were asked to categorise this novel by genre, it would be a challenge. When it started it had the feeling of a rom-com – wealthy wedding planner who can’t have real relationships. It then slowly morphs into a political thriller when the mother is introduced and her hard- line politics are revealed along with the fact that she knows what her family are doing but they have no idea where she is. There are moments when it is a bit James Bond, particluarly when the mother’s compound is discovered in the hills, off-grid with plentiful supplies of money, food, water and weapons.

The more I read, the more I realise that the American dream is such a varied dream, and this is just one vision. If I had to choose one theme that stands out, it would be love. Romantic love, family love, love of self and where you come from and that you choose who you love and it may not always be your mother!

A remarkable debut, a fantastic story and a learning about Puerto Rica.

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