How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents | Critical Review by Donna Rifkind

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
This section contains 778 words
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Critical Review by Donna Rifkind

SOURCE: "Speaking American," in The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 14.

Rifkind is an American critic. In the following review, she provides a mixed assessment of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, stating that in this work Alvarez "has not yet quite found a voice."

To speak without an accent is the ultimate goal of the immigrant, yet the literature of immigration requires an accent to lend it authenticity and flair. This threshold—between accent and native speech, alienation and assimilation—is the golden door through which the Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez sails with How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, her first collection of interwoven stories. It is a threshold that, in our multicultural era, many other American writers have recently crossed, including such best-selling authors as Oscar Hijuelos, Jamaica Kincaid and Amy Tan. Yet stories about this experience are at least as old as the classical image of Aeneas, his son by his side and his father on his back, venturing to a profoundly foreign new world.

Julia Alvarez's Garcia girls—Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, Sofia—are steeped in longstanding traditions of their own. They share a noble Spanish ancestry dating back to the conquistadores. In their homeland, the Dominican Republic, their prodigious family is wealthy and influential, occupying a Kennedyesque compound of opulent homes. But when their father, the gracious, cultured Dr. Garcia, joins in a botched attempt to oust the dictator Rafael Trujillo, the family is forced to escape to New York.

The Americanization of these grammar school girls means fighting for a distinctiveness they have never known. Back at the island compound, they lived among a multitude of aunts, uncles, cousins (Dr. Garcia himself is the youngest of 35 children, 25 of them legitimate). Every experience was a group activity: when one cousin caught the measles, all the children were quarantined together to insure a collective immunity.

With the Garcia girls' new-world individuality comes the pain of discrimination, the greenhorn's terror. Their characters are forged amid the taunts of schoolmates, who raise questions about identity in a language they barely understand. "Here they were trying to fit into America among Americans," writes Ms. Alvarez; "they needed help figuring out who they were, why the Irish kids whose grandparents had been micks were calling them spics. Why had they come to this country in the first place?"

Their parents can't be counted on to answer these questions. Dr. Garcia, who after years in the United States still cringes at the sight of uniforms and black Volkswagens (the car of the secret police back home), stubbornly clings to the memories and accents of the old world. Mrs. Garcia, whose clothes and shoes match just a bit too perfectly and whose malaprops ("It takes two to tangle, you know") are an embarrassment, is a good enough mother for indulged and overprotected island girls, but for emancipated New York teen-agers she's "a terrible girlfriend parent, a real failure of a Mom."

Despite the lack of guidance, though, all four girls are determined to assimilate. Their tour through an American adolescence and young adulthood includes some familiar baggage: anorexia, experimental drugs and sex (this is the late 1960's), failed relationships, nervous breakdowns, psychiatrists, and, ultimately, the American dream of every junior Ms.: professional success harmoniously balanced with marriage and children.

Julia Alvarez, who teaches English at Middlebury College in Vermont, devotes nearly half of her stories to the mature discontents of the Garcia girls. But because their adult preoccupations are by now such cliches—the staples of women's magazines and pop fiction—these chapters are by far the book's weaker half. Much more powerful are the rich descriptions of island life and the poignant stories detailing the Garcias' first year in the United States. These come at the end of the book, curiously, for Julia Alvarez has chosen to tell her tale backwards: the first section of five stories dates from 1989 to 1972, the middle five stories from 1970 to 1960 and the last five from 1960 to 1956.

While this seems at first to be an unnecessary bit of gimmickry, it is in fact a shrewd idea: by locating the best stories last, Ms. Alvarez has made this a better book than it might otherwise have been. She has, to her great credit, beautifully captured the threshold experience of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory and the future remains an anxious dream. Her second and more ambitious goal, however, that of translating her characters' voices into an unhackneyed American idiom, has gone unrealized. The Garcia girls may indeed have lost their accents, but in her first book of fiction Julia Alvarez has not yet quite found a voice.

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This section contains 778 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Donna Rifkind