The two protagonists of this novel, Dominican national poet Salomé Ureña and her Cuban-raised daughter, Salomé Camila Henríquez Ureña, ask about the strength of the heart: “Is love stronger than anything else in the world?” Several epic love stories cry out for attention in Julia Alvarez’s new biographical novel: love for one’s country and one’s family (the fatherland and the paterfamilias); love for poetry and the flesh that inhabits it; love of beauty and idealism. With each love, of course, comes a unique betrayal.
The love for one’s country can be a painful long-distance relationship. Salomé Ureña’s father leaps in and out of exile, depending on whether the “blues” or the “reds” are in power, and her husband, Pancho, is eventually forced to flee Dominican boundaries, like many of his friends before him. The Henríquez Ureña family suffers the seizures of political instability, lust, and disease; Camila, the only daughter of la poetisa, is bereft of country and mother at a tender age and spends her entire life straining to close those wounds.
The novel explores this struggle for spiritual reunification in two directions. It begins in 1960, when Camila leaves her tenured post at Vassar College to join the Cuban Revolution, and works its way back to her earliest memories. Interspersed with this retrospective is the forward-moving story of her mother’s life, beginning at age six and ending with the racking cough of consumption at age forty-seven. Each chapter is named for one of Salomé’s poems: the Spanish titles denote her own chronology, while the English ones mark Camila’s return to childhood. The eight poems cross midway. Chapter 4 contains both “Amor y anhelo” and “Shadows”; chapter 5 has”Sombras” and “Love and Yearning.”
Alvarez brings to life fascinating historical figures. The intersecting stories of mother and child, exile and return, loyalty and infidelity, however, fall short of their promise. The overlapping design of the book means that the histories are told twice, with limited insight into each woman’s intellect and emotions. Instead, we encounter repeated details as Alvarez tucks already known information into every available space. The only existing portrait of Salomé is discussed in several chapters, and we are told each time that it is not a true likeness, that the “aquiline nose” and fair skin are lies, that the artist has whitened the poet’s mixed-race heritage. Again and again we hear of the Henríquez Ureña family’s menagerie of pets (including the monkeys and a pig named Teddy Roosevelt); of Camila’s brother Fran, who killed a man; and of Pancho’s overdramatization of his poor health, his habit of gasping, with his hand on his heart, at emotional moments. It is as if Alvarez seized on these details during her research and felt compelled to mention them over and over as a stamp of authenticity. Because we are continually told what we have heard already, there is little forward momentum, little for us to imagine; most of the story unfolds exactly as we expect. [End Page 168]
Two sections, however, are noteworthy for their absorbing and elegant recounting. The first, “Ruinas,” takes place in Santo Domingo from 1887 to 1891. Pancho has been sent to France by the Dominican government for medical training. He has left behind his wife and three sons. The story of the family here is advanced entirely through the letters Salomé writes to him, detailing local political events—including the imprisonment of his brother—the growth of their sons, and her deteriorating health and overwhelming loneliness. Previously in the novel Camila has stated that Pancho begins a second family in France, but there is pleasant suspense in reading through the events of Salomé’s daily life en route to the moment at the chapter’s close when she discovers her husband’s infidelity.
Toward the end of the book we enter the consciousness of a child. Camila is traveling by sea to Cabo, Haiti, where her father is living...