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Review: Dominicana, by Angie Cruz
Flatiron, 2019. 319 pp. $27

When Juan Ruiz marries Ana Canción, he takes her from Los Guayacanos, Dominican Republic, to New York City on New Year’s Day, 1965. That might be unremarkable, except that Ana is only fifteen, while he’s thirty-two and has been lusting after her for at least four years. Never mind that Ana doesn’t love him or that Juan wears his machismo like armor, with all that implies about his prerogatives, self-regard, and definition of marital duties. But he’s a hard worker, Ana’s mother believes, and a big thinker. Besides, what Ana wants doesn’t matter. Mamá plans to get off the island, escaping its poverty, dead-end future, and corrupt, leeching dictatorship. Ana will get free herself, then be her mother’s (and siblings’) ticket to New York. So that’s settled.

The central symbol of this engaging, heart-rending novel is Dominicana, the ceramic doll that Juan buys Ana at the Santo Domingo airport, and which Ana keeps in their apartment in Washington Heights, upper Manhattan. It’s the first and practically the last gift he buys her. Oh, he provides a few dresses, but nothing like the wardrobe she needs; just enough to look nice for him. Ana fixes his favorite Dominican foods — she’s an excellent cook — while he buys Chef Boyardee for her. And though he can go anywhere he wants, anytime, with anyone, let Juan find out that she’s walked to the corner store, and he’ll slap her face.

Though Cruz never calls attention to what the doll represents, it clearly stands in for her identity as a Dominican and her quick, brutal, much-too-early transition from childhood to womanhood in a strange, frightening city. The doll reminds Ana of who she is, and the family she’s left behind. Most important, Dominicana is Ana herself, for what is she to Juan but a faceless doll, a possession to use as he wills, or to show off to his friends? However, to Ana, Dominicana also has a practical purpose, as a hiding place for the money she manages to earn on the sly.

For Mamá, though she’s pimped her own daughter and been controlling, nasty, and cruelly withholding, has instilled one lesson in her Ana’s head. Smile at your husband and his friends, she says; be the perfect wife in all ways. But don’t forget to demand what you want, and to work around him to get something for yourself. As she has often told Ana, men can only perform like men “when women are doing everything. We’re invisible little workers so they can puff out their chests.”

That lesson saves Ana. It also prevents the novel from becoming a tale of unremitting masochism, a catalog of Juan’s bad behavior and his child bride’s helplessness, with no hope permitted (and no reason to keep reading). But Ana, though she gets burned a couple times trusting the wrong people, keeps looking for ways to grow. And when a coup erupts in the Dominican Republic–manipulated by the United States government, which sends troops–Juan leaves to try to secure his business interests on the island.

American G.I.’s in firefight in the Dominican while a child hides under a Jeep, May 1965 (United States Information Agency, courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, public domain)

That respite is what Ana’s been waiting for. She shows remarkable energy, spirit, and courage in seizing her chance, aided by Juan’s brother, César, who’s everything her husband is not. Yet though Dominicana is a shorter book than the number of pages suggests, Cruz is properly careful not to push the envelope too far. Ana remains young, scared, and confused about what she wants or can be allowed to want. There’s no Hollywood transformation, complete with shimmering images and everybody applauding at how she’s grown. Besides, she’s no fool; Juan won’t be gone forever.

I like how Cruz weaves external events into the narrative. The coup naturally commands Ana’s attention the most, but there’s also Malcolm X’s murder, the World’s Fair, baseball, and, in the background, Vietnam. To this ex-New Yorker, who lived six months in Washington Heights (though twenty years after the action here), the city sings a familiar song. Generally, Cruz avoids heavily descriptive passages, but this one shows Ana’s first unescorted view of her new home:

A cluster of wig-wearing and long-skirted mothers push strollers the size of shopping carts near the subway stop. Past the triangle on 170th Street, where the trees light up at dusk and people sit watching their children play until the night takes over. I try not to look at the eyes of anyone, just at the fire hydrants, the bus stops, the iron lampposts, the uneven sidewalks cracked in parts that have imprints of hands and boot soles. Pigeons eat from the soil moistened by the recent rain. Is it true that the sewer houses the devil, and that if I get near it, it will suck me in?

The story can be hard to follow at times, because of the very brief, episodic chapters, especially when thoughts and spoken words blend for want of quotation marks. I also want the narrative to linger longer at key emotional transitions toward the end. Even so, I strongly recommend you read Dominicana, a terrific book and a necessary, important story about what immigrant life is really like.

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