In the acknowledgements section of her third novel, “Dominicana,” Angie Cruz writes that the novel is inspired by her mother’s story of immigration. Cruz writes: “…she said, who would be interested in a story about a woman like me? It’s so typical.”
“Dominicana” is a portrait of the 15-year-old Ana Canción, who is from the countryside town of Los Guayacanes in the Dominican Republic. She is married off to Juan Ruiz, a man twice her age, and resettles in New York City with the expectation of bringing her mother and siblings after an interval. This plan is complicated when the abusive Juan moves back to the Dominican Republic to protect his restaurant during a civil war. Ana is left with his charming but flighty brother César, who is a completely different, supportive presence in her life and with whom she soon falls in love. Close to the middle of the novel, Ana is suddenly conflicted between her distaste for Juan and her love for César on one hand, and her obligations to her family on the other.
In an essay on the Paris Review blog, Cruz details how her mother’s young marriage, the basis for the novel, is in a sense typical of the immigrant experience — parents make tough decisions for the sake of their children. “For many years, I vilified my grandmother for marrying off my mother, for not giving her a choice, for coercing her to sacrifice her body, desire, and liberty. She was just a child. But then I think my grandmother was trying to save her.” To be in Ana’s position means that no decision is merely personal — she has to think of her mother and her siblings as well.
Ana’s predicament thus resembles a classic novelistic situation — many, many novels center around a love triangle that energizes a social milieu, makes its internal workings visible. “Dominicana” doesn’t quite work like this, though. It’s ultimately a novel where not much deviates from the expected course of affairs, a sense one reaches long before the plot with César emerges. Ana’s actions of resistance do not develop the plot, but have a quality of furtiveness, futility. After Juan chokes her, she decides to try to escape back home to her mother, anticipating the abuse she would endure upon arriving.
“On the table she’ll have laid out a plastic slipper, my father’s leather belt, a sack of uncooked rice, a ream from a tree, the fly swatter, and a wire hanger.” She is eventually stopped by César, whereafter she resigns herself to staying in New York. After another abusive episode, she tries to make Juan sick by feeding him a meal made from a pigeon she caught from her fire escape, which he “survives without even a stomachache.”
The novel has a tendency to short circuit its narrative before it begins. What remains is, more often than not, minutiae: she cooks food for Juan and her few friends, she endures Juan’s abuse and the restrictions he places on her life, she tries to make money via odd jobs, she thinks absentmindedly about home. This is all done in scenic rather than expository writing — we are in the room for every routine preparation of a meal, for every time Juan comes home exhausted and drunk from work.
Several storylines move under the surface but fail to fully assert themselves above the noise of the everyday. Ana gives food to and tries to communicate with several elderly people in her building who seem to live on their own; Ana befriends a woman named Marisela who disappears one day; Ana starts a business selling Dominican food to workers at a textile factory. Each story doesn’t ever really pose as a serious contender for dominance over the central story of Ana’s endurance for the sake of her family. Even the plot with César, which most threatens to destabilize Ana’s tenuous hold on her situation, simply fizzes out toward the end of the novel without any real sense of closure or even change. It never comes into the open or forces anyone to confront anything.
The plot of the novel is quiet, living more in gestures than arcs. Obligation asserts its hold everywhere in a way that is likely about as realistic as it gets for someone in Ana’s situation. Good writing can come out of this mold — the short stories of Yuko Tsushima come to mind — but it requires an attention to detail that isn’t exercised here. The prose style is clipped, with little in the way of sensory detail. The novel is built out of statements rather than emotions, emotion factual rather than sensual: “We walk back to the apartment, both too hungry to speak. He carries my bag. I loop my arm around his. The sun beams on us. The wind whips paper cups up from the corner garbage cans. I want to scream, sing, spin, laugh. I’m having a baby!”
It’s a kind of writing that is at times bright and pointillistic but doesn’t let a whole lot of internality through, even when it depicts pain or desire. It’s an odd choice for a story where not much out of the ordinary actually happens — the book is dry, brittle, factual. I didn’t feel like I was let into much of Ana’s world at all. More than anything, Cruz spoils a lot of the narrative for herself by her tendency to editorialize as things happen, clipping the narrative by essentially glossing its meaning. When César is arrested, Ana pauses at one point, like someone recalling something: “I hate you! I continue to scream. You don’t know what it’s like for us. How hard it is trying to survive in this big city. How many times César has been screwed, even if he always walks in a straight line.” Glosses like this tended to take me fully out of the narrative into Cruz’s attitude toward her subjects, one that is respectful but ultimately distant.
Ultimately, it feels like Cruz is trying to do something with the form of the novel that it doesn’t naturally do well: Stand in for a collective, “typical” experience. I’m reminded of Julie Otsuka’s novella “The Buddha In The Attic,” which is told from a collective we. Cruz’s title, as well as the voluminous research she underwent to write the novel, seems to indicate that she is trying to do something similar with one woman’s story. Otsuka’s novella works because the collective we can accommodate a great range of contradictory experiences. If a single character needs to stand in for a place, a time, or a people, she runs the risk of losing the ability to speak for herself. Ana’s character, in the end, feels less like a real person and more like a synecdoche.
She both has a saintly devotion to her family and a desire for freedom, and because she stands in for the Dominican-American experience writ large, this contradiction isn’t allowed to complicate matters. It feels like Ana’s desires are not her own but those of her potential readers, who Cruz imagines as white Americans. “Stories like my mother’s, although common, are rarely represented in the mainstream narratives available to us,” she writes in the acknowledgements. I’m starting to wonder whether the desire indexed by this statement might create a set of expectations that the form of the novel can’t fulfill.