“Could it be that that’s just the way things go between people? Irreconcilable differences, which can’t really be explained or solved.”
What could have been a polyphonic tragicomedy exploring trauma, abusive and dysfunctional relationships, generational and cultural divides, sex, love, and desire, is let down by a cast of cartoonish characters, repetitive dialogues and interactions, and a rambling plot. The novel’s opening is certainly intriguing as we follow 20-year-old Soledad returning to the neighborhood she grew up in, Washington Heights, which she left two years prior to work at an art gallery and rebrand herself in the East Village. Her past however catches up with her when Soledad learns from her Tía Gorda that her mother, Olivia, has slipped into a deep trance that leaves her unresponsive to the ‘real’ world. Soledad hates her neighborhood, she feels burdened by her familial duties, by the rhythms of Washington Heights, and longs to leave. But she stays, despite her love-hate relationship with her mother.
“My name means loneliness in Spanish, the language my mother speaks and dreams in. She said this name would open people’s hearts to me and make them listen. She thought with a name like Soledad I would never be alone.”
The novel switches constantly povs, so we get sections centered on Tía Gorda, who resents her sister’s closeness to her own daughter, Flaca, her mother and Soledad’s grandmother, Doña Sosa, who for years has been her husband’s caretaker, Soledad’s uncle Victor, a machista who doesn’t want to ‘settle down’ and has a reputation for breaking hearts, Flaca, a fourteen-year-old who is portrayed as ‘promiscuous’ and ‘bratty’, and Soledad’s mother, Oliviam who watches over the people who are coming and going in her apartment but is unable to wake from her mysterious malady. Now, I liked the premise, and while I don’t usually love books that have no quotation marks and constantly switch povs I was curious to see how this tale of a dysfunctional family would unfold, especially given that it is rooted in magical realism. Also, a week or so before reading Soledad I’d read and loved Louise Erdrich’s LaRose, which also features no quotations marks, multiple perspectives, dysfunctional families, fraught mother-daughter relationships, a ‘troubled’ young girl coming of age, and magical realism….so I actually had a good feeling about Soledad.
“We just worry about her fate, like people worry about the hole in the ozone; not doing anything to stop the disaster but seeing it looming in the future. ”
My oh my….this novel was all over the place. While I usually prefer books that are less about plot than character development or even books that are more interested in giving us a ‘slice of life’ type of presenting us with some epic saga, Soledad just comes across as an inchoate mess that fails to bring closure or meaning to its storylines. There were so many dynamics and scenarios that are poorly addressed/portrayed or seemingly forgotten about. It did not help that despite the different voices, many of them, regardless if from a 1st or 3rd pov, sounded much like the same person. There was also a lot of repetition. The novel tries to underline over and over again just how fraught, with old and new resentments, and lingering traumas, the bonds between these women are, but it does so in an ultimately very over-the-top fashion. There is no subtlety, no layers. Even statements that seem to suggest a more nuanced understanding of the complicated nature of mother-daughter relationships ultimately felt like weak platitudes about generational differences (that gave me strong ‘young people today tsk tsk’ vibes) and misunderstandings (borne out of wanting to protect someone you love or preventing them from repeating your mistakes).
“My grandmother is split between ideas, countries, her dreams and what’s real.”
The fragments we get focusing on Soledad’s older relatives do not make for fully fleshed characters or vividly rendered circumstances. This is a pity as I do think that the novel had the potential of exploring sexual desire in older women, but these snippets seem to paint Soledad’s relatives as rather one-note ‘hysterical’ women (because of course women who emote have to be portrayed as ‘strident’ and ‘irrational’). Soledad is meant to be a sympathetic character, the central piece to this disruptive family portrait, but she just seemed painfully vanilla. Rather than challenging her view/understanding of her neighborhood, her Dominican-American community, her family, the novel makes her change of heart a result of a super seductive guy, Richie, who gives some serious pick-up artist vibes but in reality he is actually a Good Guy, two scoops of trauma for plot reasons, and a good ol’ dose of filial guilt. I did not like her, sure, but it frustrated me that the novel pinned so much on her when it came to Olivia’s condition and their strained relationship. I found that scene with her sassy, wise, and cool lesbian friend (who is largely forgotten after said scene) to be queer-baiting. Maybe if the novel had explored her attraction to her or dedicated more time to their friendship or explored her sexuality, maybe then it would have not stood out as at best shallow, at worst ‘sensationalistic’.
The worst character was Flaca. Sadly, time and again I have come across this type of adult-authored teenage girl. I don’t need every problematic or troubling thing that appears in a novel to be challenged, far from it, but I just could not put up with how the narrative makes Flaca, basically a child, into a ridiculous joke. Her antics, from acting ‘tough’ to her pursuit of this bloody Richie, her childish responses to her mother and Soledad, everything about her is meant to paint her as a bratty, self-obsessed, disobedient, rude, mean, manipulative, vindictive, stupid, man-crazed adolescent. Her mother tries to instil some sense of duty in her or to make her obey her rules but Flaca doesn’t care. She comforts to society’s idea of a teenage girl, someone who is disrespectful (especially towards her long-suffering mother), and who ‘puts herself’ in danger or ‘objectifies herself’… rather than criticizing how patriarchal societies & androcentric cultures sexualize young girls or exploring the harmful power dynamics between an adult man and a teenage girl (she may feel validated/flattered by an adult seeing her and treating her like she is a grownup, that she is special, desirable, etc), it just paints Flaca as ‘silly’, ‘childish’, ‘promiscuous’. Gorda and Flaca’s scenes basically see them fighting, verbally and physically, and that’s that. Flaca, we are led to believe, loves her Tía Olivia, but I did not buy it as we are meant to believe that her antics would not be a problem for her Tía?! The worst thing is how Soledad doesn’t worry when she learns that Flaca is interested in Richie and is in fact slightly jealous…WTF. She even tells Richie that “It’s not like I care if you are [after Flaca] or anything. You can do what ever you want” …is she forgetting that he is a grown-ass man and that her cousin is 14? Soledad, ragazza mia, you don’t have to like your annoying cousin who clearly hates you but how can she tell this guy that he can do ‘whatever’ and go ‘after’ a 14-year-old???? And she seems to be reassured by his response: “It’s not like I’m all that. It’s more like Flaca is a minor and I ain’t going there.” Which is not at all fucking reassuring because what is preventing him from “going after” Flaca is not that “that would be gross she is a child” but that she is “minor”, the law is against, you know, going with a minor, so he is not going to go there. He claims that he is not giving Flaca any ideas but he constantly is, calling her his “favorite girl” and telling her that she doesn’t like when she wears “revealing” clothes because “I don’t like my favorite girl going around like that. You too classy for that shit”. If he really understood and was concerned for her wellbeing he wouldn’t say shit that Flaca, in her impressionable ‘according-to-this-adult-writer-teen-girls-are-stupid’ brain, can warp into meaning that “he wants me/he is being possessive/he thinks I’m classy”. Later on, she starts hooking up with a friend of Richie, to get him jealous. The guy is really pushy and pressures her into becoming physical with him (pretty sure he is also a grown-ass man…disgusting). Flaca then spends all of her time whining about Soledad for ‘stealing’ Richie and even messes with Soledad’s stuff. Towards the end she asks Richie why he calls her classy but doesn’t “do anything about it” to which he replies “be careful what you wish for”…
Btw, all of the men are some shade of vile, stupid, and/or sexist. Richie, supposedly a good guy, is just as sleazy and the way he behaves and talks about Flaca…yikes. Victor has a sudden change of heart from his fuckboi ways that feels contrived and as if exonerating of his earlier behavior…Victor, upon coming across a naked Olivia, fears that “his dick [will find out] there’s a potential place for it, it will pop up” and that “he’s had that feeling before, where he doesn’t care who the person is […] he just wants to fuck” so he has to remind himself that Olivia is “not a woman but his sister”.
There was so much yuckiness. The sex scenes either made me roll my eyes or triggered my gag reflex, the story deals with heavy themes (like sexual and physical abuse, abusive relationship, child abuse, misogyny) either flippantly or garishly. I also could not forgive this novel for its hatred and misunderstanding of teen girls and its lack of genuine female solidarity (for instance between flaca and solidad).
I excepted a lot more, but I found Soledad offensive, simplistic, and repetitive. The exploration of sexuality, complex family dynamics, guilt and forgiveness, trauma and healing, often felt cut short, by a pov switch or yet another fight or ridiculously horny line. The magical realism element also troubled me as I found an aspect of it moralistic (it has to do with olivia’s past).
Despite all of these issues, I do think that Angie Cruz is (in theory) a good storyteller. She has an ear for language, and while sadly her prose ventures down cliched avenues, there are instances, especially when it comes to describing her characters’ environments, tracking their frenzied thoughts, and in the dialogues (when the characters are not fighting) when she is able to be both blunt and lyrical. Because of this, I actually plan on trying something else of hers.
Just because this novel wasn’t for me should not stop you from giving it a go, YMMV and all that.
My rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
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