ISBN 0738208205 - I often wondered, as I read this book, whether it was among the most self-serving blather I'd read in ages or one of the best books I'd read in years. Really, what's more self-serving than immortalizing your own existence in a book? And how much better when that book makes a former lover, who treated you poorly, look like a fool - repeatedly? In the end, though, the answer is - one of the best books I've read in years! If the periodic Spanish phrase intimidates the English-reading-only, don't let that stop you - almost every phrase is smoothly translated in the text.
Esmeralda Santiago, oldest of eleven children, runs away from home. At age 21, "runs away" sounds strange, but it is what she does. To be with her probably-Armenian-insists-he's-Turkish lover, Ulvi Dogan, she leaves her mother's home and begins to find herself by first leaving behind "Negi", the name she was called at home. Ulvi likes her just the way she is - naive, innocent, rather obedient and not at all a "spoiled American girl" - and calls her Chiquita. He treats her almost like property, looks on her family with disdain and works hard to keep her from growing, changing, and making friends. What Ulvi likes about her, and the way she honestly writes about it, makes the reader actually understand a little why she stays with this man, who is seventeen years older than she and would obviously not be able to have a relationship with a strong-willed, independent woman of his own age with opinions of her own - one who would certainly not let him call her "Chiquita". Without her honesty, the sentence "I was nothing Ulvi had told me many times." on page 23 would leave the reader wondering what could possibly be worth reading for the next 300 pages.
Esmeralda's relationship with Ulvi begins to end from the very start, when he returns from a stay in the hospital and locks himself in the bedroom to talk to another woman. It takes years to conclude. From Florida to New York to Texas and back to the east coast, often together, sometimes apart, Ulvi and Esmeralda seem to live two lives - his and theirs. Every break-up or time spent apart gives her more insight into herself and more courage to become Esmeralda, with her own life, until - one step at a time - she eventually finds herself, in every sense of the phrase, at Harvard. It seemed only fitting to me that her graduation should be in Boston in 1976, the 200th anniversary of the independence of America.
One small pleasure, for the nosy (like me!) reader: run "Ulvi Dogan" through a search engine. More than half of the hits are for this book, very few relate to "his" movie. A small thing, but I disliked the guy enough to smile when I saw that! I feel as if I should confess that I'm white, and living in a neighborhood that is mostly Hispanic and that a good chunk of the Spanish population here is Puerto Rican. Maybe that's what ultimately made this book such a pleasure - I could identify bits and pieces of culture and tradition from the book in the lives of people I know and care about. Or maybe it's that, despite her constant reference to her culture and the race issues that crop up throughout, Esmeralda's just a woman, and this is a story any woman of any age or race can relate to on some level. Either way, this title's well worth the time and has me looking forward (or, more accurately, backward) to finding her other works.