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Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo - Review

Saturday, October 7, 2023

I've read other books by Elizabeth Acevedo and really enjoyed them, so when I discovered she had written a book for adults I was excited to read it and I requested it at the library. I was the first person to loan out the book! I picked it up just after I brought it home. 

However, it took me a week to read it as I just couldn't get into it. I can't explain why I didn't like it and why it just didn't gel, but by 4/5ths of the way through I was just bored and wanted to give the book two out of five. I did feel like the end did redeem the book somewhat so I am ending up giving it three out of five, but for me that's quite sad and I just wish I liked this book more. 

The book concerns the Marte family, who are from the Dominican Republic originally, but all the siblings end up living in New York City. Flor, the middle of the five children, has a magical gift - she has the gift of dreaming when people will die. Knowing this, the rest of the family is worried when she announces she will be holding a living wake for herself. What has she seen? Is she about to die? She engages her niece Yadi to cater the event, and the whole book is taken up by the time between her announcement and the wake itself.

It does go backwards and forwards in time, though, and sometimes it's not clear who or what every piece of story belongs to. The matriarch of the family was Mama Silvia, who ruled over her children strictly on the campo in the Dominican Republic. The eldest child was Samuel, who is barely mentioned in the book (somewhat thankfully as there are a lot of characters). The eldest sister is Matilde. She is married to Rafa, who is a philanderer and who left her at the hotel on their wedding night to go sleep with someone else. They have never had any children, which is painful for Matilde. She knows her husband has affairs but seems unwilling to do anything about it. She loves dancing, salsa dancing, and is very good at it. She meets a new instructor in the book and it seems like she might have an affair with him. She's around seventy and she doesn't have any magical gifts like her sisters. Dancing is her magical gift, though! 

The next child is Flor who as I said has the gift of seeing death. She was married to Pedro, who has died. She seems to have found childhood difficult but I didn't really pick up why, but she came up against Mama Silvia a lot. She wanted to join the nunnery (there is also a nun aunt) but ended up getting married and having Ona. 

Pastora is the next sister - she is married to Manuelito and they seem to have a genuinely good marriage. They have a daughter, Yadi. Pastora works in a clothes shop. She also sees Matilde's husband Rafa and a younger woman who is heavily pregnant and wants to tell Matilde about it, but Matilde doesn't want to hear it. Pastora has the gift of being able to discern who is telling the truth and how. She was disgraced as a child and sent to Mama Silvia's sister, whose name still cannot be mentioned within the family, and seems to have suffered trauma because of that. I probably liked her best. 

The youngest sister is Camila, born at least ten years after everyone else and who was perhaps least badly treated by Mama Silvia. There's very little about her in the book, but her magical gift is that she can heal with herbs. She is married to Washington, and there's a bit about their wedding/marriage which shows that it's a sexless marriage. 

Ona's magical gift is a magical vagina. She lives with her boyfriend Jeremiah and they're trying for a baby, but Ona had surgery not too long ago and isn't sure if she can conceive. Ona is sort of the overviewer of the entire narrative, but her aunts do keep their secrets from her. 

The book is told kind of from an anthropological point of view, supposedly in interviews that Ona has conducted (she interjects history and opinion into the narrative at many points). She is studying anthropology and has turned to her own family as a subject. I did like this aspect and I did like the look at DR history and emmigration. 

Finally there's Yadi, who owns a cafeteria and is a vegan. Right at the beginning of the book her childhood friend Ant appears back in her life. He has been in prison for like fifteen years and is now out. They were in love as teens and there's still a spark between them but Yadi isn't sure what she wants. 

Seriously there are so many strands to this book and I just didn't feel like they were all needed and while an expansive narrative can be amazing, it just didn't work for me here. 

I felt there were too many people for me to keep track of, and I definitely lost which man belonged to which sister. I also didn't understand some of the Spanish - at times it was clear in context what it meant, but at times I had to google a word or phrase that I didn't understand. I'm still not sure what was meant about the water that Rafa's mistress asked Pastora for and feel like that did affect my enjoyment of that arc and what came afterwards. The phrasing didn't seem to be able to be translated fully. 

I'm sad I didn't like this very much; onwards and upwards to Elizabeth's next book!

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