“Olga Dies Dreaming,” one of this year’s breakout popular novels, opens with a great set piece. The titular character, Olga Acevedo, an upscale wedding planner in New York, is sweating the critically important detail of …. napkins. Linen, of course, but the hemstitch border? The color — white, ivory, a touch of blue? How should they be folded? What about — heaven forbid — lint?
And, most delicately: How many hundreds of them can she plausibly over-order, keeping the surplus for a relative’s wedding?
Author Xochitl Gonzalez, who will be at the National Book Festival on Sept. 3, renders this scene with wit and in granular detail, in large part because, like her protagonist, she was a high-end, high-energy wedding planner of Puerto Rican descent in New York for more than a decade.
“The napkins is an absolutely true story,” she laughs in a recent interview. “It was such a perfect way to think about class (divisions).”
The novel starts in 2017 with Olga at 40 — single, child-free, work-obsessed — involved in an icky affair with a wealthy, white multimillionaire nearly 15 years her senior. (She had orchestrated the wedding of his daughter, while he was still married.) And, we learn, extra napkins aren’t the only thing Olga is grifting from her uber-wealthy clients; she’s also hustling liquor with a front for the Russian mafia. This is when she meets Matteo, a mixed-race real estate agent who’s got a certain charm and a furniture-hoarding problem.
Her brother Pedro is the congressman who represents their home district. He cares about their Puerto Rican neighborhood, but as a closeted gay man, finds himself being blackmailed by big-time developers into clearing the way for the neighborhood’s gentrification.
The siblings are close, in part because their parents were socialist revolutionaries who abandoned them as teens. Their mother took off for a clandestine life across the Caribbean and Latin America. Now living in hiding, she sends them haranguing letters about how they are betraying The People. Their father died from AIDS as a drug addict.
It’s an engaging plot energetically told, and it’s no surprise to learn that a one-hour pilot on Hulu was in development even before the book was published in January.
But, as the pages flip past, the story draws deeper into the well of what the American Dream might actually mean to Caribbean immigrants, their children and the larger society in which they find themselves. There’s also the business of families, secrets and finding oneself in a sea of contradictory social forces, particularly when their mother barrels back in their lives when Hurricane Maria devastates Puerto Rico.
“The real impetus (for the book) was how I’ve always just been raised to be concerned about colonialism and Puerto Rico,” says Gonzalez. “That was always in the background, even when my parents weren’t in the foreground of my life. This was a way to explore a lot of my passions …. In some ways, I say the character of Olga is me without 10 years of therapy.”
The story is tightly autobiographical, Gonzalez says, because she started writing it as a memoir, switching to fiction so she could encompass larger themes and multiple story lines.
Like her heroine, the 45-year-old Gonzalez is a Brooklynite of Puerto Rican descent, was mostly raised by her grandparents and went to public high school but an Ivy League college (Brown, in the author’s case). Both heroine and author are the children of radical socialists who were more bent on world revolution than parenting and were raised by grandparents. (Gonzalez’s mother is Puerto Rican; her father, Mexican.) She was an only child. The closeted brother, she says, is one of the story’s primary fictional additions.
She wound down her wedding-planning business when she turned 40, having an “entrepreneurial heart attack” about wanting to become a writer. She went to work at Hunter College, but wrote fiction from 5 to 7 a.m. with more writing time on the weekends. Several months later, she was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she wrapped up the first draft of the book. She finished revisions during the pandemic.
The book’s title is a key to its ambitions. It stems from Pedro Pietri’s poem “Puerto Rican Obituary,” a foundational document of the Nuyorican movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It relates the bitter reality of Puerto Ricans in New York versus their dreams of American happiness. It tells and retells of the working-class lives and deaths of “Juan Miguel Milagros Olga Manuel,” with one death notice reading “Olga/died dreaming about real jewelry.”
Here’s a bit of the poem’s mood:
they were born to weep
and keep the morticians employed
as long as they pledge allegiance
to the flag that wants them destroyed”
Those contrasting forces — to assimilate, to stand free; to cash in, to resist — are the larger forces at work in Olga’s family.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, said she also wanted to preserve the memory of her childhood, of the way things used to be in her hometown.
Being a Nuyorican, she says, is “going extinct because of gentrification. And so in a lot of ways I wanted to pay homage to that …. I really wanted to just sort of put a stamp in the ground about the Brooklyn that I knew, the Nuyorican culture that I loved and was a part of what nurtured me as a kid.… This felt like a way to write a love letter to all those things.”
Xochitl Gonzalez will be on the Pop Lit stage for the “Is There Anything Funnier than Politics?” panel in Ballroom A from 3:25-4:25 p.m. She will be signing copies of “Olga Dies Dreaming” in line 7 from 5:00-6:00 p.m.
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