Olga Acevedo and her brother, Prieto, are sort of minor celebrities in NYC – Prieto is a congressman representing the neighborhood where they grew up in Brooklyn, and Olga is an event planner with many wealthy clients (including Russian mobsters). On the face of it, they are both successful adults in their 40s, but Olga and Prieto have struggled with trauma from their childhood and neither has fully accepted themselves. Their parents felt something more than pride in their Puerto Rican heritage – they were Young Lords activists, and when Olga is 13 and her brother almost 18 their mother leaves the family altogether and invests her life in pursuing independence for Puerto Rico. Olga and Prieto’s father returns to his addiction, so while he is present as much as he can be Olga and Prieto are raised by their grandmother and aunt and uncle. This story involves Olga and her brother coming to terms with how their childhood has impacted them, who they are in the present, and moving forward with the relationships that are present for them.
This book allows us to experience Olga’s inner thoughts throughout her experiences (and a few chapters that also explore Prieto’s perspective). She’s a fun character to stick with – she has a strong sense of morality and justice, in part inherited from her parents, which signals that she’s a good person – but she makes intriguing decisions that show she’s not always entirely ethical. At times, her desire for money subsumes her sense of self and at points she struggles with that, and other times she sees that with more indifference. At 40, Olga is beginning to question more of her life choices, particularly those that have asked her to face micro aggressions related to her race that she more or less accepts for money. She is attempting still to reconcile the ways in which she grew up (her belief that she had to either be a victim or resilient) and how she launched as an adult. She worked hard to go to an Ivy league school – which her parents ultimately didn’t respect or value very much. Her mother communicated with her through letters (leaving no way for Olga or her brother to return messages) and she expressed how she felt like Olga was merely fawning over ideas about success set by white people. When Olga got to college, she felt like she had more or less achieved a big goal – and yet, when she arrived, she was surrounded by people with incredible wealth, and she saw how for these people, getting into college was the beginning of their internally planned trajectory. This was a concept that resonated a great deal with me – it’s quite disorienting to suddenly be thrown among a world full of wealthy people when you are not wealthy, particularly at that time of your life.
The book is part rom-com, part family drama, and part coming-of-middle-age. There’s political drama, and also lessons about the history of the US relationship with Puerto Rico (and the continuing danger of unrelenting capitalism). I don’t want to talk too much about the plot but beyond Olga there are many entertaining characters – I enjoyed reading about Prieto’s life and his choices, I felt a lot of empathy for him as a person who had to put aside many of his own desires to help his family when his parents were unable to do that. I enjoyed relationship with Mateo. The book is full of short chapters set in 2017, mainly in Brooklyn, interspersed with letters from Olga’s mother dated throughout their childhood. Many of the events in the story culminate with Hurricane Maria and its after-effects. It showcases the lives of these siblings, but is also an homage to the vibrant neighborhoods within Brooklyn. The book is both fun and urgent. It’s best to read this without knowing too much about the plot, but the book manages to balance plot events, an exploration of characters, and a strong sense of place that helps us to understand more about what it means to be an American (and broaden our sense of that term – Puerto Ricans are Americans).