Years on TBR: 1.5
Edition owned: Knopf, 2011 (ARC, 410pp).
Since the TBR Challenge includes 12 titles, my plan is to read and review one each month during 2013. I chose Conquistadora as my second selection because while I love the Downton readalikes, I really do, I needed to escape turn-of-the-century England and read something different. An epic literary historical set in mid-19th century Puerto Rico suited my purposes nicely. My copy is a signed ARC, which I received at BEA in 2011. I spotted the paperback on a Barnes & Noble display table last weekend, so it's still pretty current.
The female lead of Conquistadora is Ana Larragoity Cubillas, a strong-willed girl who grows into an even more determined woman. Her life is chronicled simultaneously with that of the land, Puerto Rico, she claims for her own. To provide a more rounded treatment of its history and culture, and perhaps to give readers a periodic break from Ana's selfish mindset, Santiago allows equal time for the perspectives of others — relatives, associates, African slaves — whose lives intersect with hers.
As a young girl in Spain, Ana dreams of following in the footsteps of an ancestor, Don Hernán, who voyaged to the 15th-century Caribbean with Ponce de León. He left behind journals about his adventures that hold her enthralled. When she meets twin brothers Ramón and Inocente Argoso, heirs to a sugar plantation, they become the means to an end. She weds Ramón and is surprised to learn they expect her to act as Inocente's wife, too. (Quite a lot of bed-hopping occurs in this book.)
Her ambition drives the Argoso family (the brothers; their parents; and their cousin, Elena, Ana's first lover) across the ocean. Not long after they arrive, 18-year-old Ana and the men separate from the others. They travel along an overgrown, bug-infested trail to settle in at a rustic, under-performing, remote estate they name Hacienda los Gemelos ("of the Twins"). The rest of the family remains in sunny San Juan, where they set up new lives and worry about Ana's bad influence on the men.
Ana devotes herself to the plantation with an all-consuming intensity; it legally belongs to her father-in-law, who grants them five years to make a success of the place. By all accounts, they should fail, since they have too few people for their large acreage, but he doesn't count on Ana and her insistence on squeezing every last drop of work out of the slaves. Although she treats "her people" well, by the era's standards, the estate depends heavily on slave labor, and for that reason Ana will fight to her last breath to keep the cruel institution alive.
One of the points the novel brings home most forcefully is the fact that by 1844, nearly all of Spain's colonies had gained independence and abolished slavery... all but Cuba and Puerto Rico. The personal stories about the ethnic heritage of many slaves, such as the Mbuti housemaid called Flora, add considerable interest and diversity to the storyline. From time to time the plot slips into information dumps, though, relaying facts and figures on the Caribbean slave trade more ponderously than a fictional work should.
Conquistadora has been described as a Puerto Rican Gone with the Wind, which I found was somewhat valid. Ana has all the obstinacy and intelligence of Scarlett, and she holds onto the land just as tightly, but she doesn't have the same charm. Although I never really found myself gripped by the story, I read it with interest, up to a point. That point came about 100 pages from the end, when Ana's personality began to grate, and she and her household members' fates became progressively more predictable.
So, a mixed report on this one. Definitely worth reading if you know little about Puerto Rican history or appreciate heroines who defy stereotypes and cultural expectations. However, the isolated plantation setting, as full of life as it is, works to the novel's detriment, as doesn't give Ana enough space to grow or change. The finale leaves room for a potential sequel, and if that's the case, I hope it gives Ana a greater opportunity to shine.