5 Following


Currently reading

Badenheim 1939
Aharon Appelfeld, Dalya Bilu
Queen of the Conqueror: The Life of Matilda, Wife of William I
Tracy Borman
Kristin Cashore
Battle for Empire
Sam Barone
Conquistadora - Esmeralda Santiago You know those books that, from the first paragraph, you're not sure if you'll finish? This is definitely one of those. I almost stopped multiple times, and truly might have if I was reading instead of listening to the audiobook. Ultimately, I'm glad I stuck it out. I honestly had no clue how I was going to feel about this book until the very end, and curiosity about my own reaction was probably what kept me going. If I had to distill it all down, I'd say this book left me feeling conflicted, but ultimately satisfied. No one should pretend that the characters in this book are likable, or even sympathetic. The only times I found myself sympathizing with a character they were usually a slave, or a long-suffering free person like Consuelo, Severo's quadroon mistress, or Siña Damita, the medicine woman. Especially unlikable were the people that Santiago is ostensibly asking us to take special interest in: Ana, Ramon & Inocente, Severo, and the rest of the blancos. However, with few exceptions, this made for characters who were complicated in the ways that actual people are, and that makes for rewarding reading. One moment I'm rolling my eyes at Leonor and her (even for the time) old fashioned attitudes, the next I'm cheering her on when she calls Ana "egoista!" (probably the most apt description of our heroine in the book). One minute I'm applauding Ana's supposed generosity in setting up a hospital for the los Gemelos slaves, the next I'm realizing that running the hospital a) serves as some kind of "higher calling" for her, one that she ultimately uses to pat herself on the back for caring for "nuestra gente" and b) it would be a good investment for any slave owner. It's just good business.Let's not forget the slaveowner part. The NYT review of this book put it well when they talked about the "Rubik’s Cube portrait of Ana" and call her "an unconventional, ambitious woman whose attitudes toward children, slaves and lovers perplex and engross." In fact, I'm just gonna let them sum her up more effectively than I ever could: "She isn’t much of a mother, but she takes in a humpbacked baby girl abandoned on her doorstep the same day she trades her own son away in order to keep running the plantation. She’s a liberal mistress, expressing interest in the African songs her maid sings and allowing the slaves’ midwife to deliver her son. ('We all look and function pretty much the same down there,' she declares.) Yet she achieves freedom by exploiting those who, starkly, lack it." Ana may be a "liberal mistress" but you don't see her raising a cry to end slavery; nor do you see her standing up to defend it. She's part of the silent majority, and the key word here is "silent". If I have any real complaints about the book, they involve the way that Ana let certain key things just happen to her. For all her supposed strength of character and bull-headed drive to get what she wanted, the way she just let her...complicated marriage arrangement with Ramon and Inocente just kind of happen left me scratching my head. She didn't fight it like I expected her to, and I can't seem to explain that away. Perhaps it was just the cost of her using them to get her to Puerto Rico, perhaps she resigned herself to it when she saw what a good team they were (at least at the beginning). I was also hoping we'd see more of her and Elena. It could have made for more drama in a book where there was no big overarching struggle, only a series of smaller ones. At times it read more like a history of Hacienda los Gemelos than a novel, with a bit of diary mixed in. And perhaps this is just me, a norteamericana, projecting my understanding of slavery and the South on Puerto Rico, but I also could have used more of the darkness and foreboding one finds in books set in areas haunted by slavery; the dark foreboding of Flannery O'Connor or the gloomy Faulknerian sense that something in the very essence of the land has been spoiled by human bondage and that phantom, whatever it might be, is coming to get you. There were fleeting moments of both O'Connor and Faulkner's South throughout Conquistadora (such as the lurking mountains and Miguel's scene in the burning cane fields and the playacting of civility in the ramshackle casona, filled with Jorge's ornately carved furniture) that I would have loved to see more of. This by no means a perfect book, just as there are no perfect characters or perfect scenes or perfect prose within its pages. It was at times a miserable slog to get through, at times infuriating, at times confusing as hell. I'm so glad I didn't give up on it.