Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez review – nuanced novel of family, race and politics

Two Puerto Rican-American siblings fall foul of corruption, idealism and the American dream in this impressive debut

Reading Xochitl Gonzalez’s opening meditation on how wedding napkins signify wealth in the US, my heart sank. I need not have worried. Gonzalez is interested in far more than domestic one-upmanship and Olga Dies Dreaming is a multilayered debut about identity, race, the power of elites and the marginalisation of the poor.

Two Nuyorican siblings, Olga, a successful wedding planner, and Prieto, a congressman, come up against a corrupt and hostile system in their pursuit of the American dream. Olga yearns to be the “Puerto Rican Martha Stewart”, but becomes disillusioned by the relentless drive to accumulate wealth and “its phantom cousin… fame”. Prieto enters politics determined to protect his Brooklyn neighbourhood and its minority community but, as Gonzalez implies, is successful because “he was handsome and eloquent… the perfect salve for White Guilt”. Politically naive, nicknamed “Pollyanna” by his peers, Prieto finds himself blackmailed by property developers intent on gentrifying the area.

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