Tuesday, February 05, 2013

For the TBR Pile Challenge: Esmeralda Santiago, Conquistadora

Entry in the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge:  #2 out of 12

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.

11 comments:

  1. I was more impressed with Conquistadora than you were. But then, all these matters from Spain, to the Hispanic and Afro-latin Caribbean and slavery in all its aspects from Africa to the U.S. are what I do. :) And you never see a novel in English -- and few enough in Spanish, that centers Puerto Rico. This is what I mean in the surveys when I mark that there isn't enough published historical fiction for a reader like me. Yet, the wealth of material there is beyond the dreams of a dragon's hoard.

    For me, it was in the top 3 reading experiences of 2011, which had several (2012 hardly any -- I have hopes for 2013 -- such as I, Hogarth :) )

    Love, C.

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    1. Hi C, and thanks for your comments! The Puerto Rican setting was what attracted me to picking up this book in the first place, and you're right. I can't think of many if any other novels in English set there (at least not in this same timeframe. Have you read Sarah McCoy's The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico? Set considerably later, though, in the 1960s).

      The vivid historical backdrop and the descriptions of the plantation workers' backgrounds were my favorite part, and I also wish there were more novels set in the Hispanic world. There was a scene in the last half of the book, though, where one character makes a vague prediction... and I knew from that point on how everything would unfold, in a general sense (and I was right). I may have enjoyed the novel more without that, but it's hard to say.

      I've been hearing excellent things about I, Hogarth.

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  2. I don't have time to read it right now -- as Partner In Crime has just returned from Haiti, so we're going mad trying to co-ordinate what needs to be discussed, planned and done -- because he's off again next week, though this time to the more safe environs of San Francisco.

    Then, it will be Good to have I, Hogarth to turn to. I hope. :)

    Love, C.

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  3. I generally like detailed historical fiction and this setting is one I've never read about before. I'll have to keep it in mind.

    Thanks for the review.

    PS - You're doing well on your TBR challenge. So far I've managed to read a grand total of zero books from my TBR pile this year.

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    1. The author made it easy for me to imagine the setting - the house up on the hill, the sugar cane fields, the surrounding forest... there were some great descriptions.

      You can do it, Melissa! :) It IS hard to keep up with the challenge when so many shiny new books are paraded around on blogs and on Goodreads. And some show up in the mail calling out "read me now"! I wish I could stick to my exercise goals for 2013 as well as this....

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  4. By the way some of our closest friends and colleague are musicians and musicologists, who are digging into their families' and PR's past. They perform the music and dances that developed on the PR coffee plantations after the San Domingue revolution brought those planters and their slaves to PR. The grandmother of one of them taught him a song she got from her grandmother -- and it is not in Spanish, but in kreyol -- it's one of the war anthems of the Revolution. Talk about living history!

    Love, C.

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    1. Indeed! That's fascinating how the songs and dances are transmitted through the ages, and how it's still happening today. A great way to reach out and touch history.

      Safe travels to your partner in crime!

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  5. This one sounds interesting, despite the disappointing ending. One for the TBR list. Thoughtful, honest review.

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    1. It was interesting, and my reaction may not be typical; reactions are extremely varied for this one. Hope you like it!

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  6. The islands of the Caribbean (or the West Indies, as it was known back in the day), in the early 19th Century, were such a fertile area for history & historical fiction. So full of entrepreneurs of all nations trying to make their fortune in the Indies, in sugar or slave-trading.

    I set my novels, The Witch From the Sea, and Runaways in the years leading up to the early 1830s, when slavery was abolished in the English Islands; it's fascinating that Cuba and Puerto Rico clung to the institution of slavery for so much longer (as did the US, with fairly disastrous results...)

    Very thoughtful review, Sarah. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Lisa! I agree that this is a great setting for historical fiction. Thanks for mentioning your own novels are set there, too, and I've been trying to think of others. DeVa Gantt's trilogy (beginning with A Silent Ocean Away) takes place on an imaginary West Indies island in the early 19th century and deals with the shipping industry at the time. Do you have other recommendations? I'd gladly read more!

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