In the Time of the Butterflies | Critical Review by Elizabeth Starcevic

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of In the Time of the Butterflies.
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Critical Review by Ilan Stavans

SOURCE: "Daughters of Invention," in The Commonweal, Vol. CXIX, No. 7, April 10, 1992, pp. 23-5.

Stavans is an American novelist and critic. In the following review, he calls How the Garcá Girls Lost Their Accents "a brilliant debut."

In the mood for a Dominican author writing in English? You are likely to find only one: Julia Alvarez, who left her country at ten and now lives and teaches at Middlebury College. Besides a book of poetry published in 1986 (intriguingly titled Homecoming), she is the writer of this delightful novel, a tour de force that holds a unique place in the context of the ethnic literature from which it emerges. In the age of affirmative action in life and literature, those looking for themes like drug addiction, poverty, and Hispanic stereotypes are in for a surprise. Much in the tradition of nineteenth-century Russian realism, and in the line of the genuine "porcelain" narrative creations of Nina Berberova, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents has as its protagonist the García de la Torre, a rich family in Santo Domingo and its surroundings whose genealogical tree reaches back to the Spanish conquistadores. Through the García family's sorrow and happiness, through the spiritual and quotidian search that leads to their voluntary exile in the United States, the dramatic changes of an entire era are recorded. Energetic, curious, and bellicose, their collective plight is a struggle to keep up with the times, and also, an adjustment to a culture that isn't theirs.

The plot focuses on the relationship of four sisters: Carla, Sandra (Sandi), Yolanda (Yo, Yoyo, or Joe), and Sofia (Fifi). Their aristocratic upbringing as S.A.P. s—Spanish American Princessés—takes them from their "savage Caribbean island" to prestigious schools in New England and from there to an existence as middle-class citizens in the Bronx. They undergo discrimination and suffer from linguistic misunderstandings. They iron their hair according to the latest fashion and buy bell-bottom-pants with fringe. As women in difficult marriages and troubled breakups, theirs is the customary rite of passage of immigrants assimilating into another reality. Their rejection of the native background, nevertheless, is told with humor and has a sense of unrecoverable loss because, for as much as the García sisters want to become American, they remain conscious of the advantages of their Dominican selves. Hence, Alvarez's is a chronicle of the ambivalence with which Hispanics adapt to Anglo-Saxon idiosyncracies.

Made of fifteen self-contained chapters collected in three symmetrical parts, more than a novel the volume ought to be read as a collection of interrelated stories. Each segment reads as an independent unit, with the same set of characters recurring time and again in different epochs and places. As a whole, the narrative spans three decades, the first chapter beginning in 1988 and the last reaching as far back as 1956. Similar to some plots by the Cuban musicologist Alejo Carpentier and the British playwright Harold Pinter, the García girls, as if on a journey back to the source, navigate from maturity to adolescence, from knowledge to naïveté, from light to darkness—that is, their lives are perceived in reverse. In the process, the characters slowly deconstruct their personalities and reflect upon their Catholic education at home in the hands of a "respectable," highly schematic father. In his 1982 autobiography Hunger for Memory, Richard Rodriguez, while attacking bilingual education, discussed the impairment of the native tongue and the acquisition of the "father" tongue, English. Because Alvarez is uninterested in such meditations, her book, in spite of the title, isn't about language. Here and there the narrative does offer insightful reflections on the transition from an ancestral vehicle of communication to an active, convenient one. Yet the idea of "losing" one's accent is nothing but a metaphor: a symbol of cultural abandonment.

A secondary leitmotif also colors the plot—that of the coming of age of a candid female writer and her indomitable need to describe, in literary terms, her feelings and immediate milieu. Yoyo, the author's alter ego, is a sensible, extroverted adolescent who loves to write poetry. In "Daughter of Invention," perhaps the volume's best story and one recalling Ralph Ellison's first chapter of Invisible Man, she is asked to deliver a commencement speech. Her mother helps her out. In search of inspiration, Yoyo finds Whitman's Leaves of Grass, in particular "Song of Myself," and writes a speech celebrating her egotism, her excessive self-interest. The theme infuriates her father. In a rage of anger, he tears up the manuscript. But the mother's support encourages the girl to deliver the speech, which she does quite successfully. She is praised by her own repentant father with a gift of a personal typewriter.

Obviously, as a whole How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is Yoyo's product. Although its content is told by shifting narrators, she is the soul inside the text. She contrasts and ponders. She is puzzled and flabbergasted by the circumstances around her. The world gains and loses its coherence in her mind. In an illuminating segment about Pila, a bizarre maid with voodoo powers who inspired nightmares, Yoyo writes about her first discovery of things Dominican. Hers is a story of wonder and disbelief. Accustomed to a certain climate of order and to the rules set forth by her parents, she is disoriented by the behavior of the maid. After a series of mishaps that involve a cat and strange tales by a grandmother, the section concludes:

[After those experiences] we moved to the United States…. I saw snow. I solved the riddle of an outdoors made mostly of concrete in New York. My grandmother grew so old she could not remember who she was. I went away to school. I read books. You understand I am collapsing all time now so that it fits what's left in the hollow of my story? I began to write, the story of Pila, the story of my grandmother…. I grew up, a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils, a woman prone to bad dreams and bad insomnia. There are still times I wake up at three o'clock in the morning and peer into the darkness. At that hour and in that loneliness, I hear [Pila], a black furred thing lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing over some violation that lies at the center of my art.

The entire volume is a gathering of memories, a literary attempt to make sense of the past. Alvarez has an acute eye for the secret complexities that permeate family life. Although once in a while she steps into melodrama, her descriptions are full of pathos. The political reality in the Dominican Republic, although never at center stage, marks the background. The repressive thirty-year-long Trujillo dictatorship, which culminated with the leader's assassination in 1961, makes the Garcías happy but complicates their lives. The democratic elections that brought Juan Bosch into power bring a period of tranquillity, interrupted by the 1965 civil war that brought the U.S. intervention and ended in the election, supervised by the Organization of American States, of Joaquín Balaguer. The family is pushed to an exile that makes its religious faith stumble and its traditions collapse. Yet How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, unlike scores of narratives from south of the Rio Grande, is free from an anti-American message: in Tennessee Williams's terms, its primary concern is a minuscule glass menagerie, the fragile life of a group of individuals swept by epic events they constantly fight to ignore.

While imperfect and at times unbalanced, this is a brilliant debut—an important addition to the canon of Hispanic letters in the U.S. By chosing to write for an English-speaking audience, Alvarez is confessing her own loyalty: albeit reluctantly, she is in the process of losing her accent. Still, the accent refuses to die.

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This section contains 1,304 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Ruth Behar