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Review: Conquistadora, by Esmeralda Santiago
Knopf, 2011. 414 pp. $28

Be careful what you wish for. That might be the moral of this novel, but it would be hard to blame its nineteenth-century protagonist, Ana Larragoity Cubillas, for wanting what no other young woman of her time, place, and social class could normally dream of. The daughter of a Seville aristocrat whose illustrious sixteenth-century ancestor sailed with Ponce de Leon, Ana asphyxiates in an emotionally and intellectually stifling home where name and pride are the only things that matter. Her parents, angry that she wasn’t born male, see no reason to treat her with warmth or kindness, since she disappointed them and will never amount to anything they approve of. Ana’s sole refuges are the diary her conquistador forebear left behind and the occasional visits to her grandparents’ farm, where she comes alive in the garden, the barn, and the fields. Naturally, these are no pursuits for a girl of noble lineage. But she is determined not to encase herself in crinoline, marry a rich dolt older than herself, and die without seeing the world.

Rescue comes in Ana’s teenage years from a schoolmate, Elena. Not only does Elena provide the friendship Ana has never known, the girls become intimate in ways the nuns at the convent school would not even have the vocabulary to describe. The girls’ encounters are easily the most passionate scenes in the book, and Elena is the instigator, a nifty surprise given that she’s much more conventional than Ana. But that’s not all. Elena has two handsome cousins, twins of fine manners whose merchant father has commercial interests in Puerto Rico. It’s assumed that Inocente will marry Elena; Ramón proposes to Ana. But Ana has a plan: Why don’t they all move to Puerto Rico and run the sugar plantation that belongs to her prospective father-in-law? With the will and persuasiveness typical of her, Ana sells everyone on the idea and convinces her stuffy parents to permit her marriage to a mere merchant’s son.

The difficulty of reconciling a romantic education to the real world is a common theme in literature; Cervantes, Flaubert, and Sinclair Lewis come to mind as practitioners. So it’s a given that Ana’s plan doesn’t work out the way she intended, but she’s nothing if not adaptable. And though the plantation is in far worse shape than she imagined, she’s excited to be there:

She’d been moving toward this destination not knowing exactly where it was, what it looked like, but now Hacienda los Gemelos was spread below her, calling to her. She wanted to be on the ground, to feel its rich earth, to smell it, taste it even. Long before she reached it, she knew she’d love this land, would love it as long as she lived. She was eighteen years old, had arrived at the end of a journey that was also a beginning, one that she’d already decided was final. I’m here, she said to herself. I’m here, she told the breeze. . .

Corvera’s 1893 drawing of Juan Ponce de Leon, first governor of Puerto Rico (courtesy British Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

The vivid descriptions are one thing I like about Conquistadora. Another is the care Santiago takes with her minor characters. She creates touching portraits of the slaves who work Hacienda los Gemelos, many of whom carry traumatic memories of their abduction and transport across the ocean. (The ones who don’t remember were born on the island, often to mothers impregnated by the white overseer.) Since these people are virtually invisible to their owners–except when they try to escape–Santiago is plainly trying to rectify the imbalance, and I applaud that.

That said, however, I find Conquistadora a tepid novel. It reads more like a biography of Ana (or, more properly, Hacienda los Gemelos) than fiction, consisting of events that follow logically, even predictably, and reach no height of feeling, except, as I said, the schoolgirl love affair. There’s no character arc, because you find out all you will ever know about the characters early on, and Santiago tells their emotions more than she shows them, so it feels rote. There’s no story arc either, just episodes. If you drew a diagram of the tension, you’d have a sine curve, not a rising line.

I also dislike the tendentious aspect of the narrative. Ana’s descended from a conquistador, and the title is Conquistadora, after all. You see how she mistreats her slaves, and how they suffer. So how many times do you need to be told directly that she’s much like her ancestor, and that her wealth is built on the dead bodies of enslaved laborers? Quite a few, apparently.

Conquistadora is more interesting for its subject matter than as fiction.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.