How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

One sentence plot
A family with four daughters flees their comfortable life in the Dominican Republic for political reasons, and makes a life for themselves over the years in New York City.

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The review
I fished this book out of my friend’s pile of books she no longer wanted, which isn’t necessarily an auspicious start for a book, but I rather liked How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents – though I hate the name. The book is written in a complex but engaging style, from the perspective of four daughters whose father gets involved in dangerous politics and has to move his wife and children to New York City. As a fan of coming of age stories, this sounded like a winner.

The book ranges in time from the girls’ idyllic childhoods with servants and cousins and fancy houses with huge gardens, to their first years of culture shock and assimilation in New York, to their teenage troubles and visits to ‘the island’, and then the grown up daughters celebrating their old father’s birthdays. That’s a lot to cram into under 300 pages, and Alvarez’s success in pulling it off is patchy but ultimately enjoyable.

The story of this immigrant family and their complex relationships with each other and with the island they left behind is a compelling one. The series of vignettes have moments when they are funny, poignant, fascinating, illuminating, tragic… particularly the ones describing the daughters returning to the island and trying to understand how they fit in after their Americanization. I quite enjoyed the chronology hopping back and forward, each time revealing little pieces of what made these people. The characters are interesting. I particularly liked the study of the parents emerging through their daughters’ perspectives as the story unfolded. I like the concept Alvarez is trying to achieve. I like learning more about life in the Dominican Republic.

The main problem I found with the book is that the four daughters were quite hard for me to differentiate and keep straight in my head. Perhaps because their perspectives are written in the third person and essentially sound like the same voice. I didn’t care much about them as individuals. The end is also a bit bizarre – crammed and rushed, quite unlike the rest of it, like the author was happily writing away when someone suddenly told her she had just 100 words to finish the entire book. Odd.

The story of the Garcia sisters has stayed with me. Despite the book’s many technical challenges, I enjoyed it and am fairly glad I read it. A shame I didn’t give myself a 3 1/2 shoes rating option…

The verdict: 3/5 shoes

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