Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Dominicana

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It’s 1965, and Ana Canción is fifteen years old when she enters into an arranged marriage that will transport her from the Dominican Republic to New York, and offers the chance that her family will be able to follow her there. Ana does not love her new and much older husband, Juan; he beats her, rapes her, and resists letting her leave their apartment, even to access free English classes. Nevertheless, Ana reaches out to her new world as far as she can, befriending one of Juan’s female debtors, Marisela, and talking to the pigeons who live outside her window. When political unrest in the Dominican Republic forces Juan to return to protect his assets, the radius of Ana’s world dramatically expands; suddenly, alongside Juan’s attractive younger brother César, she is dreaming of starting her own food business and selling pastelitos at the World’s Fair. However, what will happen when Juan comes back?

Angie Cruz writes in the afterword to Dominicana that ‘This novel was inspired by my mother’s story… When I told my mother back in 2005 I would write a novel inspired by her, she said, Who would be interested in a story about a woman like me? It’s so typical. And yet, stories like my mother’s, although common, are rarely represented in the mainstream narratives available to us. I am grateful for the opportunity to publish this singular story, knowing very well that so many writers who are women of color do not have this privilege and access.’ Cruz is, in one sense, absolutely right. I’ve read nothing about the Dominican Republic before and knew nothing about the community of Dominicanas that formed in New York City from the 1950s onwards and which is beautifully documented here.

Cruz writes vividly about Ana’s life and language, and although her prose can be a little cringeworthy while describing Ana’s experience of sexual desire (Rachel picks out some good examples in her review), this didn’t dominate my experience of reading the novel as a whole (I wondered if this purple prose reflected the telenovelas that Ana consumes). In general, I felt that Cruz did a good job of communicating the inner world of this very young woman, and her ability to continue exploring and hoping, as in her friendship with Marisela, who exploits her naivety but also gives her a different way to frame her relationship with Juan. After Marisela jokes with her about men, she scripts a different kind of imaginary conversation with her husband: ‘I fall to the sofa, feet in the air. Ana, go get me a drink! Hurry! Where’s my dinner? What’s taking you so long? Ana! Ana! Ana! Oh Juan, get your own stupid drink! I say to the hat on the table, then laugh.’ Ana can’t easily escape her abuse, but Cruz conveys how she builds up an inner resilience that enables her later (if limited) rebellion.

Nevertheless, while the raw materials of this story may be fresh, the literary model that Cruz has chosen is painfully familiar. Dominicana maps out the precise story beats of so many other novels about immigration to the United States that I’ve read, and so it becomes very predictable (not helped by the fact that the blurb summarises pretty much all of the plot!). While the narrative comes to life in a way that other versions of this narrative don’t (for example, Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers), I became frustrated by this very limited coming-of-age framing. The novel already cheats slightly by jumping out of Ana’s first-person voice to give us glimpses of Juan, and I felt that this story might have been much more thought-provoking had we not been confined to Ana’s head. I would have loved to have read more from Juan, who intricately justifies his treatment of Ana and his affair with another woman, and perhaps to explore the perspective of Ana’s mother, who pushes her daughter into this marriage to benefit her family. These perspectives would also have allowed us to see more of the Dominican Republic rather than the typical New York 60s setting. On reflection, I found my enthusiasm for this book waning as I read on.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number six. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; and Nightingale Point.

20 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Dominicana

  1. I hadn’t thought about mimicking telenovelas; I do remember liking the scenes where she recasts herself and Juan and Lucy and Ricky in I Love Lucy. Something about the character’s voice really captivated me here. I’ll be interested to see the spread of opinions from others, and whether this makes the shortlist (I’m guessing not).

    I’m reading Actress now, with indifference, and will pick up Djinn Patrol from the library on Friday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I could see what Cruz was trying to do with Ana’s voice, but I didn’t find her fascinating enough as a character given that she had to carry the whole novel.

      I have high hopes for Actress! Sorry you’re not enjoying it.

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  2. I really enjoyed this one, but although I’ve read a lot of immigrant stories over the years, I haven’t read too many about making your way in New York and so this seemed fresher to me. Or such a young protagonist, either, when I think about it (apart from The Girl with the Louding Voice). So I found it fresher, and got really engaged in it. I also read it on holiday in long gulps, so I was really immersed in the story, which might have helped. I think your review is very fair in the circumstances, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Ana’s youth is definitely a plus, and I can see that many of the writing choices were because Cruz is writing in the voice of an adolescent girl who is totally out of her depth. But for the same reason, I would have liked other points of view!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent and balanced review. You’re right, the prose really did color my experience with the whole thing – I like your theory about Ana’s inner monologue being shaped by telenovelas, but I think that would require me to credit Cruz with a bit too much benefit of the doubt. On the whole though I really agree with you – the passages from Juan’s POV were my favorite part and I wanted more of that and less of Ana’s paint-by-numbers coming of age narrative. And I was also so annoyed with the summary giving the whole thing away! I’m sure that added to my frustration with its predictability.

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