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Merle

Merle

Conquistadora - Esmeralda Santiago So far this book has not been well-received, and while it isn’t terrible, I have to agree with the other reviewers that it also isn’t very good.

Despite the title, Conquistadora is mostly about Ana, a young Spanish woman who, enthralled by the journals of a conquistador ancestor, moves to mid-19th century Puerto Rico to live on a sugar plantation. The book follows the next 20 years of her life, as well as the lives of her relatives and slaves.

Probably the best thing about this book is the historical background. I’ve studied a bit of Caribbean history, and the author captures it pretty well here. We see the tense relationships between the plantation owners and the slaves: Ana spends most of her time surrounded by slaves and believes she has relationships with some of them, but at the same time, the whites are terrified of the slaves, the more so the more they hear about revolts and slaves being freed in other countries in the Americas. And being terrified makes them even more despotic. Meanwhile, there’s tension between the native-born criollos and the Spanish-born elite although, unlike in other Latin American countries, this never culminates in a revolution.

Then there’s the plot and characters. I found the book relatively interesting: the plot moves along, although mostly it’s just telling the story of the characters’ lives; don’t expect a lot of action. The characters are somewhat interesting although not necessarily nice. But I respect Santiago for not whitewashing the slave owners: she creates the kind of people who would be able to successfully run a plantation depending on slave labor, and so, yes, they’re selfish and coldhearted. Ana cares about “her people,” to a certain degree, but she cares about her profits more and she’s willing to overlook brutality. The men who run the plantations are worse. Santiago does create more sympathetic, if flatter, characters in Elena and Miguel (who of course don’t live on the plantation), as well as giving voices to a few of the slaves. But ultimately I was disappointed: key characters like Ana don’t really seem to grow and develop. I didn’t expect her to do an about-face politically, but at some point the natural change that a human being experiences with age and new relationships seems to stall, and she becomes less interesting.

Additionally, the plot just isn’t as good as it could have been. Sometimes it veers into melodrama. Other times scenes meant to have emotional resonance aren’t built up to at all and fall flat. Late in the book a character suddenly falls in love with that character’s spouse of several years--for no apparent reason, and literally in the space of one page. Poof! Love! Um. And then there’s some magic realism that’s frankly silly; maybe Santiago thought she ought to have it because she’s a Latin American writer, but someone having visions adds nothing to this book. And the ending was just poorly done.

To add to all this, the writing just isn’t all that great. Santiago’s prose style is average at best. And she has an unfortunate tendency to tell rather than show, so we get passages like:

“Like many of their contemporaries, Ana and the twins were ambivalent about the institution of slavery. But living among slaves now, they were confronted with every aspect of its reality. At the same time, what humanitarian feelings pricked at the edge of their conscience were tempered by the urgent need to realize a gain on their investment in brazos for the fields.”

Which I’ll let speak for itself. I also get the feeling she’s much more comfortable writing in Spanish; the text is peppered with often unnecessary Spanish words and phrases, to the extent that I’d hesitate to recommend it to someone who hasn’t had at least a year or two of Spanish in school; many of the most emotionally charged comments are in Spanish. And there’s some misuse of English words (apparently she thinks “pupils” are the colored part of the eye)--but I read an advance review copy, so hopefully this will be corrected in the final version.

Ultimately, I think I would recommend this book--with caveats--to someone who’s interested in the setting and time period. But the comparisons to Gone With the Wind and Isabel Allende’s work are hyperbole at best; a great work of fiction this is not.