How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is a warm, funny, and intimate portrait of an immigrant family. After their father’s participation in a failed coup, Yolanda, Sandra, Carla, and Sofia flee their beloved Dominican Republic with their parents and finish growing up in New York City. Unlike their “hair and nails” cousins on the Island who overlook their husbands’ indiscretions, the sisters become educated American professionals with indiscretions of their own.
Author Julia Alvarez is a beautiful writer. She has a knack for repeating words and ideas, so that the things happening in the scene become part of the telling of that scene. For instance, at one point Yolanda is knitting a baby blanket for her new niece as the four sisters coo over the infant and update each other about their love lives. Yolanda notices a mistake in her handiwork, rips out a row of stitches, and starts over. A page later, Sofia tells her sisters in reference to her husband:
“I knew the minute I saw him.”
“That you loved him?” Yolanda asks. Fifi nods. Since Clive left, Yolanda is addicted to love stories with happy endings, as if there were a stitch she missed, a mistake she made way back when she fell in love with her first man, and if only she could find it, maybe she could undo it, unravel John, Brad, Steven, Rudy, and start over.
In the pause before someone picks up the thread of conversations, they all listen to the baby’s soft breathing.
Another example of Alvarez’ gift for crafting word pictures is the big fight between Sofia and Papi when he discovers a stash of forbidden love letters:
The father was screaming crazily in the youngest daughter’s face, question after question, not giving the daughter a chance to answer. His face grew red with fury, but hers was more terrible in its impassivity, a pale ivory moon, pulling and pulling at the tide of his anger, until it seemed he might drown in his own outpouring of fury.
The chapters read like a closely-related collection of short stories, presenting different points of view, each cluster moving backwards in time to uncover more and more of the family’s roots. Because there is no traditional beginning-middle-end, the effect is that of concluding a visit with friends you expect to see again rather than saying good-bye to a set of characters.
After this positive first experience, I plan to look for some of Alvarez’ other books, including In the Time of the Butterflies (a novel), The Woman I Kept to Myself (poetry), and Before We Were Free (a young adult novel).