"It really hurts, you know, that my family can't share this with me. I mean I haven't done anything wrong. I could have been an axe murderer. I could have gotten up on some roof in a shopping mall and mowed down a bunch of people."
I sure am glad that it's me she's talking to and not one of the psychologist sisters.
"All I did was write a book," she wails.
"Everyone's feeling a little exposed, that's all."
"But it's fiction!" she starts in.
Yolanda Garcia, or Yo, has just released a new book that has triggered a lot of angry reactions in her family. Even though Yo claims that it is fiction, each family member can identify themselves in some character of the book. They are frustrated, understandably, because their friends and acquaintances keep asking them which character represents them. Yo's mother is threatening to sue her while her sisters are refusing to talk to her. Yo cannot understand why her family is reacting as such and she keeps insisting that her book is fiction. Since her family members and sundry other people she knows are unable to do anything but rail at their portrayal in the so-called-fictional story, they each get a chance to redeem themselves by telling their story, and saying exactly what they think of Yo.
This is one of the most unique books I've ever read. I started reading it in Denver, when I missed my flight and was stuck at the airport for more than 12 hours. It was a good thing that I had just the perfect read to tide me over. Yo! is divided into 16 chapters, each chapter written from the perspective of a different person - not all family members. At the outset, it seems strange that a particular person may even be associated with someone vibrant and so full of life as Yo, but the connection soon becomes evident, halfway through that chapter. While some of the characters talk all about Yo and their relationship, and how Yo influenced their lives, others talk more about their own lives with Yo making a guest appearance. As I kept reading the book and entered the lives of different people, I began to get more curious about how Yo was going to make her appearance in that chapter - as a savior or as a person to keep away from.
Some of the characters who have their own chapters include close family members such as a sister, a cousin, her mother and her father. But in addition, there are other prominent characters such as an ex-lover, a maid's daughter, a landlady, a student, and a stalker. Not all the narrators know that they might have been caricatured in Yo's book, but they all have things to tell about Yo's life, and writing habits. Despite the changing narrator, I never found the flow of the novel to be disruptive - it actually works really well for this book.
Since all we had was the family's word at the start of the book that Yo "fictionally victimized" them, we get to form our own judgement through the stories shared by the characters. And though we never have Yo making a direct appearance other than in the narratives of other characters, the author still manages to create a rich and vivid person in Yo. From a young age, Yo was witty and stubborn. She also loved writing stories about the people she knew. She had gotten into plenty of trouble for telling tales - some of which could have almost gotten her family into danger in war-torn Dominican Republic, where she grew up.
The book reads more like a series of short stories than a complete book. Intertwined with each character's reminiscence of their relationship with Yo are snippets of their own life, as if they were caught in the middle of a household chore to sit in front of the interviewer. I loved how these little characters came to life and how no one appeared one-dimensional. The stories are in no particular chronological order. Although I wasn't initially sure of how things fell into place time-wise, before soon, I had a vague timeline in place. It is not until we reach almost two-thirds of the book that we really hear one person's experience of reading one of her books. Until then, I wasn't sure if Yo was just "inspired" by the stories in her life or whether there was more to it.
I have to admit that I was getting tired halfway through - reading so much about one person across 300 pages did wear me down a bit, but I'm glad that the focus on Yo's character shifts every few chapters, so that we don't hear the same thing over and over. Mostly, I'm impressed that you can write 300 pages about anyone in fiction, and without a plot. The whole story is set up for the reader to decide what they think of Yo, almost like a court case. The reader is the judge and the various characters with their own chapters are the witnesses. I loved the whole concept, and taking a stand on whether Yo did the right thing or not was not straightforward - by the end of the book, I learned so much about Yo, that I could only form an opinion but not slam the gavel. Overall, I truly enjoyed this very different read, and am eager to read more of Julia Alvarez's work.
I saw this book on the Beach reads display shelf at my local library and will give my librarian a big hug for introducing me to a book I may never have read otherwise.