Yo! by Julia Alvarez

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Yo!
"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.


18 comments:

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

This does sound like a really unique book.  Your review has intrigued me but I wonder if the lack of plot would bother me.

Athira / Aths said...

I would say the plot is all about finding whether Yo's action is justified or whether the other folks are over-reacting. This is more of a character oriented book, and despite the lack of a plot, it felt right. I hope you get a chance to read this.

Ali Watts said...

Have you read How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents? It features the same set of characters but talks about their earlier experiences coming to the United States and dealing with culture wars/building immigrant identities etc. Yo! is described as a spin-off  from HtGGLTA (not quuuiiite a sequel since some of the backstories change... but almost).  It's a classic in undergrad Multicultural Lit classes nowadays

Jill Broderick said...

What a nightmare, being stuck at the airport all that time!  Maybe you got tired of the book because of the circumstances!

zibilee said...

I find the premise of this book to be fascinating, and have always wondered what happens when the author of a fictional book gets pounded by the real life people in their lives for taking liberties like that. It sounds as if this would be a spectacular read for me, and I am glad that you enjoyed it so much. The ideas surrounding this book don't sound all that far fetched, you know?

Juju at Tales of Whimsy... said...

Sounds interesting. Reminds me of a tv show I love called October Road. He wrote about his friends and family and they were pissed about it.

Athira / Aths said...

I saw that book! I think I read a spin-off before the real deal, lol. I am def going to get my hand on that book. I love that this book is a classic in the lit class!

Athira / Aths said...

I guess that's right. I was thinking the same thing. At one point, my circumstance started interfering with my reading.

Athira / Aths said...

I know what you mean. There are many times I've wanted to write something personal and then I'm left wondering what will people think if I put then in my piece.

Athira / Aths said...

I haven't heard of that show. I'm going to check it out.

Helen Murdoch said...

I had a similar reaction. I liked this book, but had to take a break from it in the middle. I do like Julia Alvarez as an author though

Marce said...

What an interesting concept, unique indeed. I'm intrigued.

Brenda said...

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is fantastic!

Emily said...

This sounds really good!  Thanks for such a fantastic review.

Athira / Aths said...

I'm glad I am not the only one who felt that. I do want to read more of Julia Alvarez's books though - she does seem like an author I will enjoy. 

Athira / Aths said...

This was an interesting read for me!

Athira / Aths said...

I have that wishlisted - I hope to get to it soon! 

Athira / Aths said...

You're welcome! I thought this was intriguing!