Somewhere buried in these almost 300 pages (or just over nine hours if you’re listening to the husky voice of actress Daphne Rubin-Vega) is a really good book about the quinceañera – the 15th birthday celebration of a Latina which marks her maturity from little girl to womanhood. Alas, as it’s printed now, Once is just too much: merely trimming the repetition and the not-that-interesting ramblings of too many (famous) voices would definitely have made it a more streamlined read.
Using the framing device of a single “quince” – that of Monica Ramos, a Dominican American girl from Queens, New York – Julia Alvarez weaves together her own bicultural coming-of-age in a Queens of decades past as a Dominican immigrant child in the 1960s. In between sharing the details of Monica’s special evening – the scheduling hiccups, the missing parents at her quickie church blessing, her not-quite Disney-fied “court,”‘ the finally radiant Monica – Alvarez traces the growing phenomenon of the American quinceañera and its hybrid history, its sociological implications, its wildly varying economics, and its rampant consumerism.
From beginning to end, Alvarez channels Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, both as a literary phenomenon who guided her own path as a writer, and as one of three dolls she collected during her research which are representative of the trinity of “charms to remind me of aspects of coming-of-age as a girl.” That trio is composed of the princess which every girl wants to be on her special “quince” night, the fairy godmother who will enable the magical celebration, and the woman warrior who every girl will need to become in order to fight the “uphill battle against sexism, gender inequalities in wage earnings, threats to our equal rights, as well as against internal furies and naysayers that will try to hold us back.” Ironically, that these three dolls were bought in the U.S., are from a French manufacturer, but made in China, Alvarez notes, is yet another reminder that “[e]ven our dolls embody our global, ethnic, and racial mixtures!”
Alvarez is a versatile, highly regarded writer of multiple genres across all ages, best known for her award-winning novels How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. She’s the sort of writer that can sell a book just because her name appears on the cover. While I was ultimately disappointed this time (I haven’t been before – how many prolific writers can you say that about?!!), I admit to sharing moments of insight, laughter, head-shaking shock, and even a few tears. That’s certainly enough to merit picking up more titles just for the promise of seeing her name.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult