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You want this book in a nutshell? Here you go:
stnecca rieht tsol slrig aicraG eht woH.
Depending on your reading-backwards comprehension (what? You didn't take that standardized test in grade school?) you might realize that we just wrote out How The García Girls Lost Their Accents backwards. Why would we do such a thing? Because, dear repoomhS, How The García Girls Lost Their Accents is written backwards.
Nah, not like the above. That would be a tad sadistic. Also, if the entirety of this book were written in Alphabet soup-style mayhem, Julia Alvarez's debut novel wouldn't have been the smash-hit it was when it was published in 1991.
If you could only read How The García Girls Lost Their Accents in a mirror, the New York Public Libraries wouldn't have included it in their list of 21 New Classics For The 21st Century.
And if all of Alvarez's luminous prose was written backwards-sdrawkcab, we doubt she would have the honor of being the first Dominican writer to produce a major novel in English. That historically significant moment would have been someone else's.
But it wasn't. The megahit that is How The García Girls Lost Their Accents is 100% Alvarez.
So what's up with this backwards stuff? Well, the storyline of How The García Girls Lost Their Accents is told backwards. It starts in the 1980s and works backwards through the García sisters' adulthoods, adolescences, and girlhoods.
And what occurs in this inverted coming-of-age story (hmm… a coming-of-childhood story? a going-of-age story?)? Sheesh. Where to begin? Oh, yeah, at the end.
There are ominous guava groves, out-of-touch relatives, weird intimations of incest, a mental breakdown, another mental breakdown, an awww-inspiring international love story, a poorly chosen college boyfriend, a revolution, a CIA plot, a sculptor doing unmentionable things to his sculpture, a very spooky coal shed, and a tortured baby kitten.
And that's just a preview of the events that make up the lives of the García family. This novel examines Yolanda's decision to become a poet, the events that shape Carla's interest in psychology, and Papi's revolutionary past. In big-picture terms, we examine how the life of an affluent family living under the oppressive thumb of the Dominican Republic's midcentury dictatorship changes radically when moved to America.
The García family (especially the titular girls) is thrown for a loop when they realize that while they're not accepted as American, they're not accepted as Dominican anymore, either. They're trapped between cultures that want to pigeonhole them as "Other." This novel questions the idea of national and cultural identity, the second wave of the feminist movement, and the atrocities and intense political climate of the 20th century Dominican Republic.
You know the saying about Ginger Rogers? Outshone for the majority of her career by her partner Fred Astaire, Bob Thaves wrote that "Sure, (Astaire) was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything that he did… backwards and in high heels".
Well, Julia Alvarez takes on heavy-hitting international relations, Freudian psychology, questions of identity and immigration, the concepts of the relationship between trauma and art and does it all backwards (and quite possibly in heels).
You know what it's like to straddle two different worlds. Even if you've lived your whole life in the same town. You have school friends and work friends: two different worlds. Your have family life and social life: two different worlds. You have your cool-as-a-cucumber exterior and then you get weepy every single time you watch Littlefoot's mother die in The Land Before Time. Okay, maybe the last one is just us.
But you get our point. A huge part of coming-of-age is realizing that you're a fractured individual: a really good student who still can't remember to pick their wet towel off of their bedroom floor. A really sweet, respectful grandson that loves to quote the filthiest Louis C.K. jokes to his buddies. A take-no-prisoners rollergirl who kicks butt on her derby team… and goes home to bake cookies with her niece.
And it's this fractured sense of self, this feeling of being about five different people inhabiting the same body, that makes How The García Girls Lost Their Accents tick.
These sisters have super-split identities. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the States, they're Americans to their Dominican cousins and Dominican to their American peers. That's got to be confusing (and infuriating).
And so the García sisters do what everyone does: they vacillate wildly between personality extremes. They try everything in order to fit in in America, and they try everything to fit in in the Dominican Republic. They try to lose their accents when they're speaking English and they try to lose their accents when they're speaking Spanish.
But guess what?
Even though they learn to speak without an accent, they still feel different. Because they are different. And there's nothing they can do about it: they're caught between two worlds and learn to exist in both of them.
And, more importantly, they learn to take a lesson from Rhett Butler. They learn to stop worrying and love their fractured selves. They fall in love with all of their disparate identities.
Hey, if there's a classic movie to be referenced, you just know that us film nerds at Shmoop are on it. After all, we're movie buffs by night and street luge daredevils by day… and it took us a long time (and a few readings of How The García Girls Lost Their Accents) to be able to be cool with that.
But don't think that How The García Girls Lost Their Accents is just life lessons. There's political intrigue (for the news junkie in you), true love (for the romantic in you), filthy double entendres and symbolism (for the side of you that freezes The Lion King in order to read the word 'sex' spelled out in the stars), creepy coal sheds and animal cruelty (for the American Horror Story devotee in you) and a whole cast of memorable family members (for the side of you that—despite weird Cousin Al and his obnoxious Hawaiian t-shirts—can't wait for the next family reunion).
A Little Something Extra from Alvarez
The author has a pretty sweet website, with tons of news about upcoming books, appearances by the author, and links to her blog entries.
The Storyteller Gets Told!
The Encyclopedia of World Biography has a pretty extensive write-up on Ms. Alvarez, including her family history, her literary career, and her most recent ventures.
Another Awesome Political Drama from Julia Alvarez
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents hasn't been made into a movie, but another novel by Julia Alvarez has. If you can't get enough of Ms. Alvarez's stunning character development, check out this film adaptation of In the Time of the Butterflies. Bonus—it stars Salma Hayek!
This short movie is based on one of the stories from Julia Alvarez's collection ¡Yo!. Yolanda García visits her family in the Dominican Republic. And her American boyfriend tags along. We imagine hilarity ensues.
"When you are writing, you have to turn off all the censors."
In this interview with The Atlantic in July of 2000, Julia Alvarez talks about how moving to the U.S. made her a writer, her teaching, and the tricky issue of writing about people you know.
Par-tay! (On a reasonable budget. Let's not get carried away here.)
Alvarez writes an article for the magazine Salon about the tradition of the quinceañera, a coming-out party for Hispanic teenage girls. And she's sort of blown away by how elaborate—and how expensive—the tradition has become.
Who Shot Rafael Trujillo?
Carlos García didn't succeed in killing Trujillo, but someone else did in real life. And the BBC interviewed him.
Racking Up Those Prizes!
Julia Alvarez won the 2009 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award, woot! Here you can watch an interview where she talks about her experiences as a young immigrant to the United States. One YouTube commenter describes the author as "quirky." What do you think?
Why Libraries are Awesome
Can you imagine going to your public library to catch an interview with a literary rockstar like Julia Alvarez? Well these lucky ducks in New York got to do just that in September of 2010.
What Kind of World Do You Want?
Julia Alvarez tells us why she's really, really happy she gets to vote.
In this podcast by National Endowment for the Arts, Julia Alvarez talks about the process of writing her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel about four sisters, three of whom were killed for opposing the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo.
An Interview for the Young'uns
Julia Alvarez introduces her latest book, Return to Sender, a story about Mexican migrant laborers who work on farms in Vermont. Both the book and the interview are geared toward young readers (ages 10 and up), but we still thought it was cool.
Shmoopers, Meet Julia
Julia, meet Shmoopers. We're sure you're going to be fast friends.
This is What Our Book Looks Like. What About Yours?
We have no idea what these flowers and hummingbirds have to do with the story of the García girls, but they sure do look pretty.
What Do You Think is Going On Behind Those Palm Trees?
Here are some lovely palm trees on a lovely beach in the Dominican Republic. But now we can't look at this picture without remembering Carlos García ask about his daughter's love life with the phrase: "Have you gone behind the palm trees?"
What We Need Now is a Map
Maps are very useful things. Check out this one of the Dominican Republic.