I just finished reading Julia Alvarez’s novel “¡Yo!”, which was recommended to me by a fellow student in my former MFA program. I had put out a call on Facebook for some good books that weren’t, well, depressing. Much of classical and contemporary literature, and so many memoirs today, focus on difficult or painful topics, or are set in troubled times or regions. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Jerry Seinfeld would say – of course it’s important for us to turn to literature to understand the depth and breadth of events and experiences in our world, including experiences we hope to never endure ourselves. At the same time, every now and then it’s nice to read a book that, even if it educates the reader and touches on deeper emotions, doesn’t necessarily send you to sleep with tears on your pillow.
“¡Yo!”, by Julia Alvarez (available at Amazon.com here) was a book like that for me.
“¡Yo!” is really the story of the main character, a writer from the Dominican Republic named Yolanda Garcia, as told, chapter by chapter, through the voices of the people whose lives she touches. In a way, it’s a “revenge of the people in a writer’s life” book — all those people we writers of creative nonfiction, or even fiction, include in our stories to their annoyance and chagrin. The book starts out with Garcia’s family in an uproar over the release of her latest book, and for the most part furious about the way some private aspect of their lives or themselves has been depicted. Poor Yolanda doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about; she thought her family would embrace her success. And on some level, we believe they begrudgingly do.
As the book progresses we see Yolanda through the eyes of various characters — a sister, a boyfriend, the daughter of the family maid, even a night watchman she meets during a writing summer in the Dominican Republic. While the writing subtly addresses Yo’s cultural heritage, poverty in the Dominican Republic and Yo’s ambivalence about living in the United States, it also draws a portrait of Yo from all angles, leaving the reader feeling as if, by the end, they know Yo themselves. The prose is vibrant and humorous and, in one chapter at least, outright experimental. Each chapter is named not only for the character whose voice will be heard, but also for an element of writing craft being toyed with in the text. I was surprised, at the end of what was for the most part a relatively light and enjoyable ride, to find myself deeply touched by the final chapter.
So if you’re looking for a break from “War and Peace” and from painful (though often important) memoirs, and you still want to read a quality book, you might want to check out “¡Yo!”
And thanks, Estela, for the great recommendation.