Alienation and disorientation in a new country, complexities of family relationships, the place of women in Latino culture, and the politics of class and power in the Dominican Republic are dominant themes in Alvarez’s works. Her personal experiences form the core of her creative endeavors in her poetry as well as fiction.
In her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez draws upon her own experiences to capture the turbulent lives of the García sisters as they navigate the years of adolescence in the new land. In the process, Alvarez touches upon several of her dominant themes. Speaking with an accent, the four girls—Carla, Sandi, Yolanda, and Sofia—are considered outsiders by their peers. Sometimes rejection comes in the garb of stereotyping, as Yolanda realizes in “The Rudy Elmenhurst Story.”
To complicate matters, the parents impose the island code on their daughters. They hold firm that training the girls to be subservient to men and guarding their chastity is the right way of preparing them for life. All around, the mainstream American culture tempts the girls with the vision of freedom and romance. Disorientation, resulting from conflicting expectations, no doubt, accounts for the anorexia of Sandi, nervous breakdown of Yolanda, and the outright rebellion of Sofia.
The tyranny of parental authoritarianism can be seen in “Daughter of Invention.” When Yolanda is assigned to give a speech on the Teacher’s Day, she writes in her authentic voice, only to be told by her infuriated father that the speech was boastful and showed disrespect to teachers. He tears the pages to shreds. The incident remains a painful reminder to Yolanda of her powerlessness as a daughter.
Disorientation, however, is not the province of the young alone. The older generation is lost, too, in the new land. In the absence of the old familiar environment, common language, and clearly defined roles for men and women, the parents also falter in coping with unpredictable situations. In “Floor Show,” at the family dinner with Dr. Fanning, the man responsible for helping the family emigrate, the father betrays his uncertainty and awkwardness in dealing with the inebriated Mrs. Fanning.
The macho culture in Dominican society encourages men to overlook one another’s transgressions yet guard their women’s purity zealously. This attitude is revealed in “A Regular Revolution.” When Sofia is sent to live on the island with her relatives, she is transformed into a “Spanish-American Princess.” She dresses like her fashion-conscious cousins and behaves like them in her relationship with a “nice” young man. Appalled by Sophie’s subservience and her suitor’s dictatorial manner, the sisters decide to rescue her by conspiring to get the lovers caught without a chaperone.
Alienation and complexity of family relationships lie at the heart of ¡Yo!, a sequel to the first novel. The work has been a called “the portrait of an artist,” for it focuses on Yolanda after the publication of her first novel. In addition to humorous episodes reflecting the family’s reaction to becoming characters in her work, her preoccupation with class and power in Dominican Republic gets a fuller treatment here. Her denunciation of the continuing exploitation of the underclass in Dominican society scandalizes her family and friends. Interspersed among the chapters are the issues of cultural differences, the risks involved in pursuing a life of creative imagination, and the lure of the old world that stands in the way of true assimilation.
With In the Time of the Butterflies and In the Name of Salomé, Alvarez experiments with historical fiction. Both novels are set in the Dominican Republic. In the Time of the Butterflies memorializes the lives of the Marabel sisters, popularly known as Las Mariposas (the Butterflies). In the Name of Salomé celebrates the life of Salomé Urena, a well-known political poet in the Dominican Republic. She employs the technique of using Camila, the daughter and editor of her mother’s papers, to present a panoramic view of political and moral issues of the period from the mid-1990’s to the late twentieth century. The book allows Alvarez to explore political and social issues affecting the lives of women in the Caribbean region.
Alvarez’s experimentation with plot and point of view in fiction often poses a problem for readers. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents seems more like a collage of interconnected episodes than a novel with a traditional plot. Alvarez’s handling of chronology of events in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Name of the Butterflies is also challenging. However, Alvarez’s later fictional works reveal more effective structures. She excels in the use of multiple points of view, an effective means of developing a complex character, though excessive shifts can sometimes overwhelm the readers.
The strength of Alvarez lies in her exploration of the themes of displacement and the painful process of cultural assimilation common to all immigrants. A widening of her sphere is discernible in the shift from personal to larger historical issues. She succeeds in engaging readers in the lives of her characters. Her historical novels, in particular, serve as excellent introductions to the cultural history of the Dominican Republic.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents
First published: 1991
Type of work: Novel
Conflict between cultures of homeland and the new country leaves its mark on each García girl.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez’s first novel, has an episodic plot covering a time span of...
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