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
- Weather by Jenny Offill – ★★★★
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – ★★★★
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
- Dominicana by Angie Cruz – ★★
- Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
- 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