Julia Alvarez

"¡Yo!"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark SEP 8, 2006)

Yo! by Julia Alvarez

Yolanda Garcia's latest novel is getting a lot of attention, much to her family's chagrin. Taking to heart the advice she gives her students, Yolanda based her novel's characters on the subject she's most familiar with - her own family. Her three sisters vow never to talk to her again and their mother is threatening to sue.

It seems that Yolanda has always had a need to tell stories, or "lies" as her family puts it. Yolanda caused any number of sleepless nights when her family was living under a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. With whispers about friends disappearing, middle of the night house arrests, narrow escapes and tales of torture chambers, her parents had enough worries about their father's underground activities, never mind the possibility of snooping Yo telling "stories" to the General down the street. How does a parent instill in a child the notion that one of her stories could cause their death, without adding more fact to her imagination? And even after emigrating to the United States, could her mother stop worrying about Yo's stories. What was she telling them at school to result in a visit from a case worker? Yes, perhaps it is Yo's destiny to inflict pain upon her family through her writing.

Perhaps to give Yo her due justice, this novel is structured as series of stories, each giving voice to someone who has come into contact with her over the years, never allowing Yo her own voice. Each chapter/story has Yo, the writer, as a common theme. The "hair-and-nail" island cousin tells how Yo's journal keeping habit caused grief in her own life; the maid's daughter relates how Yo insensitively uses her for a homework assignment; the college professor condemned to repeat the words "once in a career comes a student" once again trying to help Yo get in a doctoral program or whatever her latest attempt to straighten out her life; there's the illiterate stranger on the island who needs help not only to write a letter to her daughter, but to write the right letter; and so on, each presenting their story completing yet another piece of the writer's portrait.

Even when Yolanda is her most awful self, she is endearing. Despite the things she may have advertently or inadvertently have done, one senses a loving and caring group of friends, family and strangers. Some of my favorite scenes takes place on the Dominican Republic island, especially at the family compound. There's one point where a hippy boyfriend is posing as a reporter and visiting Yolanda at the family compound. Each night he tries to get to her room, each night a different uncle corrals him over to the bar for a nightcap. The stateside boyfriend never gets the hang of fabricating, nor sneaking about.

The magic is in all of these relations having everything to do with one's life. As the mother points out in her story, the hardest part about emigrating to the US was that her and Yolanda couldn't avoid each other. "Back on the island we lived as a clan, not what is called here the nuclear family, which already the name should be a hint that you're asking for trouble cooping up related tempers in the small explosive chambers of each other's attention. The girls used to run with their gang of cousins, supervised -- if you can call it that -- by a whole bunch of aunts and nanny-maids who had wiped our bottoms when we were babies and now were wiping the drool of the old people who had hired them a half a century ago. There was never any reason to clash with anyone." Over and over again, we learn the importance of this kind of family life until we understand that Yolanda had to write her novel based on the people she knows, it is the one way to preserve the good with the bad and to "undo the old wrong."

¡Yo! is all at once humorous, light, astute, pertinent, sad, smart, gossipy and a wonderful reading experience.

  • Amazon readers' rating: from 28 reviews


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About the Author:

Julia AlvarezJulia Alvarez was born in 1950 in New York City, but raised in the Dominican Republic until political insurrection forced the Alvarez family to flee to the United States when she was ten years old. As an immigrant, books provided a world for her in which she did feel isolated. By the time she was in high school, she knew that she wanted to be a writer. Alvarez studied literature and writing, and in 1971 she graduated summa cum laude from Middlebury College in Vermont. In 1975, she received an M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. Since then, she has taught literature and writing in schools at all levels, and she is currently tenured professor at Middlebury College. With her husband, Bill Eichner, she grows and sells Dominican organic coffee to help fund a literacy program for the island.

How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents remains her most recognized novel for which she won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award and was selected a Notable Book by the New York Times and was an American Library Association Notable Book. In the Time of the Butterflies was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.

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