It’s 2017, and Olga and her brother, Pedro “Prieto” Acevedo, are bold-faced names in their hometown of New York. Prieto is a popular congressman representing their gentrifying Latinx neighborhood in Brooklyn, while Olga is a wedding planner for Manhattan’s power brokers. Despite their alluring public lives, behind closed doors, things are far less rosy. Sure, Olga can orchestrate the love stories of the 1 percent, but she can’t seem to find her own . . . until she meets Matteo, who forces her to confront the effects of long-held family secrets. Olga and Prieto’s mother, Blanca, a Young Lord turned radical, abandoned her children to advance a militant political cause, leaving them to be raised by their grandmother. Now, with the winds of hurricane season, Blanca has come barreling back into their lives. Set against the backdrop of New York City in the months surrounding the most devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico’s history, Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming is a story that examines political corruption, familial strife and the very notion of the American dream—all while asking what it really means to weather a storm.
This debut novel is about many things: family secrets and problems, managing personal relationships and gentrification. But, at the heart, I think it’s about two grown children wanting their mother’s love and attention. When they were teens, Olga and Prieto’s mother, Blanca, left them to fight for Puerto Rico’s independence. And on top of that heartbreak, their father tragically died of AIDS. Blanca keeps tabs on her children by sending them letters, but she never shows them the affection they need. For Blanca, the greater cause was the only thing that mattered throughout the novel. So her children grew up relying on each other and their extended family in Brooklyn.
Olga attends an unnamed Ivy League school and eventually becomes a successful wedding planner. Her family thinks she can do so much better, and sometimes she agrees. Towards the end of the novel, she realizes her white peers from college used the Ivy League name as a starting point to a greater life. But for her, as a Latina woman, that was actually the finish line. That was her finally “making it.” Now she feels like the rest of her life will just be spent trying to find work that makes her feel like she’s enough.
Personally, as a second-generation American, I never thought of my education that way. It was eye-opening to see things from that perspective. Have I been worthy of my education? Have I done enough with it?
Another thread in Olga Dies Dreaming is how Olga and Prieto accept themselves for who they are. The scenes of Olga and her boyfriend, Matteo, give her hope that one day she may be understood. When Matteo opens up about his past, he allows Olga to eventually tell her own story, even though she always thought it was too exhausting to share. And every time they meet up, they reveal even more about themselves. I think Matteo helps Olga see herself for who she really is and finally accept her parents’ past. When Olga explains to Matteo that she was named after a Puerto Rican nationalist, she recites a poem where she’s mentioned. Matteo responds,
“It’s a tale for you to learn from. It’s not about chasing an external ideal, not trying to fit someone else’s vision for your and instead building with the community of people who simply accept you as you are.”
Olga doesn’t think that’s what her mother was thinking when she named her. Even at 40 years old, Olga still thinks about what her absent mother wants, but Matteo is trying to show her a new way forward. I liked Matteo’s character and the vulnerability he brought to the story.
Prieto, as a closeted gay man, not only has to walk a fine line with his constituents, but he also has to maneuver the different audiences he is speaking to. While attending a swanky party in the Hamptons, the author made this remark:
“He wasn’t quite code-switching so much as he managed, miraculously, to speak several languages, simultaneously, creating a linguistic creole of hip-hop, academia, contemporary slang, and high-level policy points that made Olga marvel.”
But intense fear keeps him from being his authentic self. Eventually, a health crisis forces Prieto to be honest with himself, his family and his community. I also found Prieto to be interesting as a politician. Some of his constituents see him as a sellout when he goes to Puerto Rico, while others call him the “Latin Obama.” His relationship with his family, specifically his daughter, made Prieto see that he was never going to make everyone happy, so he should start with himself.
Xochitl Gonzalez beautifully tells Olga’s story, along with her family’s history with the wider story of Puerto Rico and a gentrifying Brooklyn. I recommend listening to the audiobook because the New York and Puerto Rican accents are performed so well.
Olga Dies Dreaming contains multitudes and I loved it.