Reading this book reminded me in some ways of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Like Didion, Julia Alvarez's protagonist Antonia Vega lost her beloved husband less than a year ago and she's finding it very difficult to cope with life without him and just to get on with it.
Antonia is a recently retired educator and a writer who lives alone now in rural Vermont. Her late husband, Sam, was a much-respected doctor who was an integral part of the community, caring for the locals as well as for immigrants, mostly undocumented, who came to work the local farms. Antonia herself is the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and that is an essential part of her self image. Since her husband's death, she finds herself more and more coming to embody his attitudes and his caring nature, while during his life, she played the "bad cop" to his "good cop." She muses at one point that Sam is taking over, that she is becoming Sam. Well, she could do worse.
Antonia has no children; what she does have is three sisters scattered over three different states. Regardless of their physical distance, they are very close emotionally and those emotions frequently boil over. In this, they are like their mother, or as Antonia says, "The mangoes didn't fall far from the tree." The oldest of the "mangoes" is called Izzie and she is particularly erratic and impulsive, bordering on bipolar or perhaps having taken up residence there. At one point, while she is headed to Illinois for a reunion with the sisters and celebration of Antonia's birthday, Izzie disappears, causing consternation and growing panic among her sisters.
But before that happens, much else has occurred to upset Antonia's quiet life.
Antonia has a neighbor who is a dairy farmer and that farmer employs two undocumented immigrants from Mexico to care for his cows. One day her neighbor stops by her house and mentions that he's noticed her gutters are overflowing with debris. He offers to send one of his workers over to clean them out and that is how she comes to meet Mario. She converses with him in Spanish and when he finishes with his task, he hesitantly asks for her help. It seems he has paid a coyote to bring his girlfriend from Mexico and now they are in Denver, but the coyote is demanding more money and Mario needs to contact his girlfriend to find out what's going on. Antonia assists him to make the phone call and thus becomes further involved in Mario's life.
The girlfriend, Estela, eventually makes it to Vermont, but she has a surprise. She is heavily pregnant, almost ready to deliver. Since Mario had been gone from Mexico for two years, that presents a problem.
Meantime, Izzie has disappeared and Antonia must go and look for her. When she returns home, she finds Estela miserably living in her garage. Mario has kicked her out. At this point, Sam takes over and Antonia becomes the "good cop" who takes Estela in - temporarily - feeds her, finds some clothes for her, and installs her in the guest room. She arranges medical care and assistance for Estela and goes to work persuading Mario to take her back. To complicate matters, the friendly local sheriff keeps dropping by. The sheriff who turns a blind eye to the many undocumented immigrants living in his county, not a wise political move in the Trump era, but Antonia isn't sure how far she can trust him.
But Izzie is still missing and Antonia is soon on the road again, trying to track her down. In her anxiety, she seeks solace in self-help podcasts and in remembering verses of her favorite poets. Her concerns for Izzie and for Estela and her unborn child and Mario all begin to meld together in a solicitude that extends not just to her blood family but to her human family. In trying to get her arms around all this she repeats the self-help mantra "you have to start by taking care of yourself" but in the end, she comes to see that as essentially selfish and to acknowledge the need for a simultaneous attentiveness to oneself and to others.
There is no sudden flash of enlightenment here. Change for the world and for those of us, like Antonia, who are aging and set in our ways, comes slowly. And yet it does come, sometimes in the most unexpected ways.
Alvarez's depiction of the lives of the undocumented in our society feels real and authentic, unlike some other recent portrayals of that experience. She writes with an easy humor and a sharp observation for the working of human relationships and most particularly for the intimacies of the immigrant sisterhood. Antonia learns that although there may be painful holes in our lives that can never be filled, they don't have to exist at the expense of others. There is a way forward even in the most broken of worlds.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars