Book Review: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

DOMINICANA by Angie Cruz (Published by Flatiron Books in 2019)

My Rating: ★★

I always feel uncomfortable when I have to give a book a low rating, but I really can’t give this one any higher, so here we are. As other reviewers have mentioned, the biggest problem with Dominicana is that it’s a tired and overused story of the immigrant experience. It’s riddled with the melodrama of a soap opera, populated by one-dimensional characters, and narrated in a flat and detached manner. At the very least, I expected to learn something new about Dominicans and Dominican culture, but the details about that were so thin that they could have easily been any other marginalized racial group.

In Dominicana, we follow the narrator Ana from her childhood in the Dominican Republic to her move to New York at fifteen years old. The first half of the book focuses on Juan’s courtship of Ana and how their relationship turns abusive after they marry, and the second half focuses on her romance with Juan’s brother, César, and how he “empowers” her to fend for herself.

I think what Cruz manages to capture with a story of a woman bookended by men is how vulnerable migrant women are to the men, and how different their experiences can be. Dominicana reminds me of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (1946), an autobiographical chronicle of a young Filipino man’s struggle to survive in America. While Bulosan’s account focuses on his finding a job, surviving the streets, and facing racial violence, Ana’s account focuses on her surviving domestic violence first, even before she can step on the streets to find a job. This is made even more difficult because she’s an immigrant with no family or friends or knowledge of English. It’s only when Juan leaves that Ana can finally explore the city, learn English, and look for work, although she only gets to do this because César “allows” her to do so.

It might be possible to read this how the limits for women’s capacity to act are always being defined by men, but this point is muddled by the addition of the romance between Ana and César. The romance shifted the conflict from Ana’s survival in New York to Ana’s indecision over which man she should be with. Additionally, while César isn’t abusive, he’s portrayed as a charming womanizer who gets points for being bare-minimum decent to Ana. It’s disappointing how every man in the book falls into unlikeable stereotypes.

Aside from the romance and the characters, I also had a problem with the choice of Ana as a narrator. In the first place, she’s just fifteen years old and has only a rudimentary grasp of English, so it seemed implausible to me that she could already be telling this story. It might have been more believable had it been framed as her writing her memoirs. Ana is also frustratingly opaque for a first-person narrator—the readers are sometimes left to infer her thoughts and emotions from her outbursts of behavior, and we never really get a feel of her personality because of the simplistic and elementary prose.

Ironically, I feel that the author made these flawed narrative choices with good intentions. In the Acknowledgements section, Cruz says that she wrote Dominicana so that she could tell her mother’s story and the stories of others like her because they’re “rarely represented in the mainstream narratives available to us”. My hunch is that Cruz took the burden of being their mouthpiece too seriously, which predisposed her to adhere to the broad sweep of these women’s narratives so she can be sure to “get it right”. Unfortunately, in doing so, she might have sacrificed taking some creative risks that could have added detail and depth to the story.

Anyway, overall, Dominicana was a bland and forgettable read. Despite its gravitas and its parade of horrors, I felt bored and detached all throughout. The writing and the narrative structure were mediocre, as well. It really makes me wonder how it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in the first place. 2 out of 5 stars.

Reviews for the Women’s Prize 2020 Longlist

  1. Weather by Jenny Offill – ★★★★
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – ★★★★
  3. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
  4. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
  5. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
  6. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – ★★
  7. Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
  8. The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel – Will not read; no rating

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from April 7-8, 2020

19 thoughts on “Book Review: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

  1. felt exactly the same about this book! I read it last year and was so disappointed with the story and the writing that I couldnt even finish it…to be honest I was a little bit baffled as to how this made it to the Womens Prize longlist, but stranger things have happened I guess 🤷‍♀️

    1. Glad I’m not the only one. Yeah, it’s really a shame because there really wasn’t anything standout about this, even if it weren’t “literary”. It got really high ratings on Goodreads too so I’m really confused what people see in it.

  2. The part that frustrates me most about the synopsis of this novel is that is seems to focus entirely on who this girl should have a sexual and romantic relationship with. Oddly, I’ve read other fiction novels and stories about immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and it was the same thing. That seems like an odd stereotype to perpetuate…

    1. Yes, that was definitely frustrating and puzzling. You’re also right about the odd stereotype, though I just have one point of reference—Diaz’s Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which also seemed to be mainly about the protagonist getting laid…

      1. Junot Diaz…..I’ve read all of his books, but I don’t know why. He just keeps writing the same horrible person over and over. The women are sexually overwhelming and the men are like hyper-muscular criminals. I was so excited when I saw Oscar, a fat nerd, would be the protagonist of Diaz’s novel, but Oscar’s sister basically tried to make him a Junior. I’ve met Junot Diaz twice, and he’s such a sweetheart. But when I heard all the accusations about him forcing himself on women, I thought about his characters and wasn’t surprised. When a man tells you who he is, listen.

      2. I’ve read two of his books so far and I admit to liking his writing, just not his characters. Yikes, I never heard those accusations, but they do make sense… With all these men being accused of sexual harassment or misconduct it makes me wonder how we‘re to approach their works. Do you suppose that it’s possible to admire their writing while holding them accountable for their dirtbag behaviors in real life?

      3. Honestly, because I met Diaz twice and he seemed so sweet, only for the accusations to resemble his characters so much, I felt betrayed. I’ve since quit following his writing as a result. I do think there are some situations where we forget more than forgive, such as Led Zepplin and the story of keeping a teen girl in a room with them (she claims she wanted to be there) that happened decades ago. R Kelly and Michael Jackson are too much to forget. I guess it depends on how egregious we feel the story is.

  3. Completely agree with you on this one! And I like your theory that the Cruz was trying to generalize based on commonalities in the real-lived stories she heard -that would absolutely explain some of the blandness of this novel. It’s just so disappointing because there was potential for a deeper and more interesting story.

  4. Literary Elephant

    Great review! I felt very similarly, especially with the romance muddying the waters of the immigrant commentary Cruz was going for, and the broad-strokes approach to representing Dominican experiences coming at the expense of a unique and creative story. I ended up with a 3-star, I think because I had just read a review about how terrible the prose was right before reading, and was relieved to find the prose the least of my concerns with this one! But it is definitely one of the titles I’m considering lowering my rating for when I do my longlist wrap-up. (The other being The Dutch House, as you know!)

    Would you recommend America is the Heart? That one’s been on my radar, and after Dominicana I’m more interested in reading a Dominican immigration story with a bit more depth.

    1. Ah, I wasn’t a fan of the prose but you’re right—it wasn’t terrible, just bland. It also lacked personality and the immediacy of experience I expect to feel from first person narrators, so it was especially disappointing for me. It really is interesting how ratings can change retrospectively—in comparison to this one The Dutch House actually doesn’t seem so bad anymore!

      Oh, I didn’t clarify that it’s not Dominican but rather Filipino! Sorry about that! Dominicana just reminded me of it because of the similar subject matter and themes. To be honest, I wasn’t a fan of America Is in the Heart. It’s written like a laundry list of all the horrors a new immigrant can experience. I’ve read it twice for two different classes in college and it just didn’t improve upon rereading. It’s definitely an important work, but there was nothing new or interesting in the form, voice, or style. But then again maybe it’s just me—my profs definitely found something to like about it. 🙂

      1. Literary Elephant

        I’ve realized that I do occasionally rate books down after some time has passed if the negatives are sticking with me better than the positives, but I don’t think I’ve ever rated a book up from my original impression! Even upon a reread. Strange.

        I think Dominicana and The Dutch House are both bad in their own ways, lol. Although Patchett’s writing was certainly better at the sentence level!

        Thanks for the info. I’ve seen the book around but don’t think I’ve ever read a really positive review so that fits my impression. Sorry to hear you had to suffer through twice! I shall keep looking elsewhere for great immigration fiction.

      2. Oh, that is strange—I find I tend to do both, and the rate-up especially if I’m still thinking about it long after reading.

        Yes, that’s true! I remember highlighting a lot more passages with Dutch House rather than Dominicana.

        Sure! I’m sorry I can’t really recommend immigrant fiction from other countries, but in terms of Philippine fiction I remember enjoying Alex Gilvarry’s “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant”, which is about a Filipino fashion designer accused of terrorism. It’s as darkly funny as it sounds. 🤣 Good luck with your search! I’ll look out for your reviews on your blog of any new fiction you read, as always. 🙂

  5. I haven’t read this one and based on the reviews I’ve seen (including yours) I don’t plan to either. It would have been very interesting to learn something about Dominican culture, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. As it is, I struggle to understand how it made the longlist.

    1. It’s weird because this got a lot of glowing reviews on Goodreads, but most of the Women’s Prize bloggers here seem to have disliked it. I’m thinking maybe it was chosen to represent Latin America—there seem to be picks this year from each major racial/ethnic groups in the UK/US. But your guess is as good as mine. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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