When Olga and Prieto Acevedo were children, their activist mother left them to be raised by their grandmother in Brooklyn so she could focus on social causes. While Blanca is unembarrassed to admit she wasn’t mother material, she still sends both her children letters telling them how to live their lives. While her letters never give away her whereabouts, they do reveal that Blanca is being kept up-to-date on the lives of her children. When the siblings become adults, Blanca considers Prieto, a Democratic congressman, to be the golden child, even if he isn’t nearly as liberal as she would hope, and Olga, wedding planner to the extremely wealthy, to be the disappointing sell out.
Olga loves her Puerto Rican heritage, but she’s a material girl. She lives close to where she grew up, but her neighborhood is gentrified. She’s learned to use both the quirks and the tricks of the rich against them to craft a clever business contract. At the beginning of the novel, Olga is 40 years old and at her peak professionally. If Olga is the pragmatist, Prieto is the idealist. Like his mother, he believes deeply in social justice, but unlike Blanca, he values people as individuals and gets to know his constituents rather than loving humanity as an abstract notion. However, Prieto also has his secrets, and he has been blackmailed by two shadowy businessmen for years, watering down his political stances.
The Acevedo siblings both find themselves at a crossroads. Olga meets a man who makes her question her life choices, from her avoidance of romantic commitments to her career goals. Prieto is under pressure from his blackmailers and he also receives life changing news. When policy is passed concerning Puerto Rico just before Hurricane Maria hits, a reversal takes place where Olga becomes the favored child and Prieto is his mother’s disgrace. After the hurricane, predators from the mainland seek to profit from Puerto Rico’s tragedy, and neither sibling is content with their comfortable lives when they see how little brown and black lives are valued.
Olga Dies Dreaming examines money and power, and the ways they do and don’t overlap. Puerto Ricans can become wealthy in this story, but they rarely become powerful. And while Blanca lacks the wealth of her overachieving offspring, she wields the type of power both Prieto and Olga lack. Similar to Prieto’s blackmailers, she holds the power of knowledge due to a large network of informants. Blanca is nearly godlike in her absence from Olga and Prieto’s life and her correspondence is nearly omniscient. At one point in the story, Prieto comes to the realization that the FBI knows more about his mother than he does. She’s not only the bogeyman of the story. Prieto’s blackmailers are nearly invisible but far more ominous than Blanca.
Ultimately, Olga Dies Dreaming is about belonging–what it means to belong to your family, what belonging means in the U.S.–and the things we gain and lose when we seek to find our place. It’s an excellent debut novel, and I look forward to seeing what Xochitl Gonzalez writes next.