TWs: rape (marital, underage), domestic abuse, racism.
This review contains spoilers.
Welcome back to another book review! Dominicana by Angie Cruz is a book I’ve been talking about wanting to read for a while: it was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction which drew me to it, and it’s also a discussion of the experience of immigrants in the US which was a topic I wanted to know more about, both through reading fiction and nonfiction. Dominicana is loosely based on the story of Cruz’s mother, I believe. Cruz herself was born in the US, though as a child and teenager she spent her summers in the Dominican Republic.
I have to admit, when I went into this I was expecting a bit more back and forth between the Dominican Republic and New York, and I was also expecting more exploration of the experience of immigrants. Instead, I would say this book’s focus is a lot narrower. Ana spends most of her time in her flat, so the book seems more like an exploration of abusive marriages and the oppression of women than the immigrant experience in particular. Of course, Ana’s immigrant status does influence the story, but more seems to serve to ensure her husband, Juan, has power over her. As an immigrant teenage wife she is isolated, she is scared of attracting attention from the authorities without the proper papers, and she feels obliged to stay in New York with Juan in the hopes that she will be able to scrape together enough money to have her family join them.
The relationship between Ana and Juan is pitched as one “without love”, but in reality it is incredibly abusive. Initially, the age gap rang massive alarm bells to me: Ana is 15, and Juan 32. I didn’t realise from reading the blurb that Ana actually marries Juan and moves to New York when she is only 15, for some reason I expected the marriage and move to occur later. On top of this, the marriage is incredibly abusive, which I wasn’t expecting. Juan rapes Ana, he controls almost every aspect of her life, he is physically violent towards her, and he is also cheating on her which is something Ana is aware of. Ana’s response to this treatment is initially to attempt to run away, back to the Dominican Republic. Her attempt at fleeing is cut off abruptly when she runs into Juan’s younger brother, César. After a single conversation with César, Ana returns to Juan despite her fear for her life. At this point, Ana doesn’t really know César, so I found this sudden change of heart surprising.
I wasn’t always convinced by the characters in this book. Ana’s sudden change of heart is one example of this, as is the way Ana’s ‘friend’ Marisela betrays her, knowing of Juan’s violence. César and Juan were perhaps the most consistent characters, but Juan seemed like a stereotype of the violent, oppressive husband that immigrant men still have to fight against. Most of the other characters were generally inconsequential. Ana’s family back home didn’t get enough time on the page to get properly fleshed out, and Juan’s friends also generally had very brief appearances and again, looked down upon Ana in the same way Juan does. There are very few characters in this book, in fact perhaps only two, that show Ana respect. César, as the opposition to Juan’s abuse is one, and I also saw Gabriel, Ana’s friend from home and the boy she was in love with as a teenager as the other. Neither of these characters are able to save Ana from the abusive situation, and both get cut out of her life.
Plot-wise, I agree with other reviewers that this book doesn’t have that much in the way of a plot, but I don’t agree that this is a bad thing. As a character-driven book, I was fairly happy to stay in the slow lane, so to speak, because it suited Ana’s life. I did go into this expecting a larger plot than I got, but I’m not citing this as a negative thing about the book at all! Like I say, I think it suited the book, but I don’t think the way the book has been advertised and marketed quite matches up to what it is. The small scale of this book was actually quite interesting to me. Ana’s dream was never to move to New York, but I do think she (and if she didn’t, her family certainly did) had big expectations of the city and her marriage that were never delivered on, which is reflected in the interiority of the novel.
Stylistically, this novel did really flow. While the style was reasonably straight-forward, I still felt like Ana’s voice was coming through consistently. I also liked that some of the Dominican Spanish was left in, but as the majority of it was in English I was a little surprised when Ana mentions learning the language and includes her attempts at speaking English in dialect. As Ana doesn’t have much chance to practice her English until later in the novel, my thoughts on the earlier section changed once I realised how little of the language she spoke. The language barrier would have made it much harder for Ana to have asked anyone for help when she was abused by Juan, as the only people around her who spoke Spanish were Juan’s friends. Having this to reflect on was really interesting for me: the book is written in Ana’s voice, yet it is in English, a language does not speak. This took me down a bit of a rabbit hole questioning things like the reliability of the narrator and in fact, the identity of the narrator. If the book is written in English, and the narrator does not speak English, is it really written in the narrator’s words? As it’s written in the present tense, the idea of Ana continuing to learn English and then writing the book reflectively doesn’t really fit. Not really sure of my conclusions on this particular aspect, it was just something I thought was interesting to think about.
Have you read Dominicana? What did you think?