I think I must have been a Boricua in a former life. I can’t seem to stay away too long from La Isla del Encanto (especially my favorite Isla Culebrita), and I get the fiercest cravings for Bebo’s and mofongo (it’s all about a full belly). So how thrilled was I to get an invitation to visit a friend’s book club to discuss Conquistadora, an epic historical novel set in Puerto Rico. Alas, alas, if I tell her fellow Boricuas what I really think, it’s likely they will never invite me back … so the truth might just have to stay here.
As a girl growing up in 18th-century Spain, Ana Larragoity Cubillas – a señorita de buena familia (you’ll hear that moniker often!) – discovers the journals of an ancestor who was one of the first visitors two centuries prior to Puerto Rico when it was still called Borínquen. Ana’s adventurous aspirations come to fruition when she marries into a family that has inherited considerable holdings in Puerto Rico. Ana, her husband Rámon, his twin brother Inocente, plan to tame the sugar plantation that they name Hacienda los Gamelos (yes, House of the Twins). Ana’s romantic notions of wild island life are hardly what her reality turns out to be, and yet nothing will make her give up the challenge to achieve her Hacienda dreams – not murder, not motherhood, not widowhood, not epidemic deaths, not betrayal after betrayal.
Slavery, colonialism, the evolving role of women, gender power plays – such important storytelling potential quickly sinks into messy, missed opportunity. The narrative, with its telenovela twists and turns, relies heavily on eye-rolling moments to sustain a sort of train-wreck momentum: Ana’s furtive premarital couplings with her convent schoolfriend (a distant relative of the twins) who gets relegated to saintly spinsterhood most of her life, the ménage-à-trois-marriage Ana endures with both twins, too many white male characters’ forcible production of a shocking supply of hapa slave offspring.
Beyond the narrative, most characters prove to be predictable one-note caricatures: driven Ana, weakling twins, wallflower Elena, wannabe Severo, hysterical Lenore, doting Eugenio, spoiled Miguel. The few moments of grace belong to the long-suffering – dare I say – noble slaves: Olivia who dreams of telling her future children her whole life story because she never even learned her own mother’s name, José who lovingly immortalizes the cholera-dead into a piece of beautiful mahogany because all that is left of his loved ones are scattered ashes. As the book ends with Ana barely in middle-age, I fear a sequel must be in the works.
Conquistadora is not my first Esmeralda Santiago title: her debut, a resonating memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, was definitely my favorite; its sequel, Almost a Woman, proved disappointing, which was my excuse for not picking up the next sequel, The Turkish Lover; her predictable novel America’s Dream remains unfinished; and now her latest might have to be my last. I confess the only reason I made it to the end had to do with my belly (did I not mention cravings?). Yes, really – the friend who so graciously invited me to meet her Boricuas, promised to reward me with Pastelon de Amarillos. I admit it: I will read (almost anything) for amazing food! After alternating between the 432-page book and the almost 18-hour audible version narrated by a subdued Santiago herself, I can only hope I’ve earned tomorrow night’s dinner.