In her restless and vibrant fourth novel, Alvarez (Yo!, 1997, etc.) turns to the historical figures of Salomé Ureña, former national poet of the Dominican Republic, and her daughter, Camila, a professor in the US, chronicling each woman’s lifelong struggle to define la patria and her obligation to it.
Starting near the end of Camila's life and the beginning of Salomé's, alternating chapters move through time in opposite directions to form a rich narrative tapestry. From an early age, poetry and politics are Salomé's crucible, and in the 1870s she becomes the voice of a people longing for independence from dictators and colonizers. A younger and especially ardent admirer wins her heart, but marriage to Pancho takes Salomé from her muse, as their children and a commitment to establishing a liberal school for girls consume her while the political situation goes from bad to worse. When Pancho begins a second family in Paris, where he’s gone to obtain advanced medical training, the strain on Salomé takes a serious toll on her health, and she contracts tuberculosis. Camila, who lost her mother when she was three, is first viewed retiring from Vassar in 1960 in order to go help the revolution in Cuba, where she grew up with her stepfamily. Camila’s struggle has been different: after confronting a crisis in her sexual identity and facing down American xenophobia as a college student during WWI, she must come to terms with Salomé's complex legacy of love and liberation while pursuing an academic career. But in the end Camila finds her own place and her own homeland, where she can carry on her mother's work.
These lives, gently told, have currents within them as wide and deep as an ocean’s—and no one can miss their primal force.