Love War Stories
The women in Ivelisse Rodriguez’s debut collection differ in age, opportunity, and background but all share one commonality: they want to believe in love. But in a culture where they are taught that to be in love, to be desired by a man, is paramount and that little else matters, it is difficult for any woman to survive. Rodriguez’s women (and one boy) are complex, well-wrought, but cannot teach us anything except perhaps how to believe in or to survive love. These nine stories present a complex, multifaceted, and somewhat connected narrative of Puerto Rican life.
The opening story, “El Qué Dirán,” which translates roughly as “what will they say,” is centered around a young girl, Noelia, getting ready for her quinceañera, her somewhat aloof mother, and the mother’s younger sister, Tía Lola. Lola has been waiting for seven years for her husband, Carlos, to return from America. Lola’s waiting is the family’s scandal and shame; Noelia’s mother fears that Lola’s “misfortune would somehow rub off on me, and my mother couldn’t, wouldn’t, imagine another woman without a husband in this house.” Noelia has grown up in a house full of the sound of Lola’s heartache and wonders, “how long the heart could stop and start before breaking.” But Noelia is not to be swayed by the tale of heartbreak resident in her family home—she dreams of Ricardo, a handsome boy her family is negotiating for her to marry. But the girl with “an insane aunt in the same house” is not the ideal match for Ricardo and when Lola makes a scene at Noelia’s quinceañera, the match falls apart. Lola’s only excuse, “I didn’t want you to be a woman. It is a terrible thing to be a woman.”
In “Holyoke, Mass: An Ethnography,” Rodriguez provides a greater sense of place than we see in “El Qué Dirán.” Her biography states that she is from Holyoke and it shows—the reality of the town, the young Puerto Rican women growing up in working class American poverty, and the beauty and possibility that resides within each of them, is incredibly well wrought. Central to this story is a coffee table book “The Boys and Girls of Holyoke,” featuring photographs of the characters when they were younger and dreamed of becoming nurses or doctors. Veronica, the protagonist, refused to commit to a dream career when the book was made. Revisiting its pages some years later makes her wonder “what the years will bring” and she decides that “the future isn’t written. This fills her with sadness and just a small pocket of hope.” It is this small pocket of hope that is a connective thread in all of the stories in this collection. These are tough girls, no nonsense young women who step up to anyone who messes with them or their boys. But these are also girls obsessed with romance. For Veronica, just as for the other girls of Holyoke, “wanting to be in love is as inevitable as fighting in the streets.”
In “The Simple Truth,” fresh out of Barnard and working at the Julia de Burgos Cultural House, Maricarmen has been tasked with curating an exhibit on the famed Puerto Rican poet. Her mother disapproves of the focus of the exhibit—Julia de Burgos’s love affairs—not merely because it’s not a “feminist” theme but because Maricarmen’s late father had an affair shortly before he died. But for Maricarmen the exhibit is meant as a tribute to him and her love for him. Throughout the story, she contemplates love and the idea of love—in one of the photographs in the exhibit she recognizes an image of love, the love of the Puerto Rican people for their beloved poet; it is, she says “the way I think we should all be loved.” But her mother remains bitter, heartbroken at her husband’s infidelity and while Maricarmen hopes for more from love, she knows that “Love between two people is up close, disheveled—a mélange of past, present, future love and acrimony.” More than any other character in the book, Maricarmen seems to transcend the trap of romance that dooms so many of Rodriguez’s other characters.
In the compelling “Summer of Nene” there is an abrupt shift in tone and voice to first person tough kid—a boy whose friend, Nene, has fallen while running from police in Central Park. Nene is hurt so badly he can no longer walk. The story focuses on the love and sexual relationship between these two boys—a relationship that can never be made public and will end with the end of summer. Throughout the narrator asks pointed and poignant questions that connect to the main thread of the collection, “I wonder what makes love last” and “what does strength have to do with love?” In the equally compelling collegiate narrative, “Some Springs Girls Do Die,” a young woman contemplates a classmate’s suicide while trying to survive her own terrible relationship. And in “The Belindas,” Belinda works at Columbia and has forged a new identity for herself by gaining enough weight that she is unrecognizable to her ex, a law student of dubious character. Belinda is also her former “thin” self. Her transformation is painfully described, “I gain about two pounds a week,” and when she chops off her long hair, “I wanted all traces of hope gone.” She wants to be invisible and “the bigger I become, the more invisible I am. In public spaces, people’s eyes usually slide off me.” Belinda stalks her ex until, eventually, while watching him repeat patterns with a new woman, she has to come to terms with his violence and her own strength.
Rodriguez writes about obsession, depression, and the harm we do to ourselves better than most. She also writes about the balancing acts many of us have to perform between cultures. In “La Hija De Changó” a young woman tries to balance her new life at the Whitney School with her boyfriend, Anthony, who is “just some guy from around the way.” She experiments with Santeria (against her mother’s wishes), studies for the SAT, and knows that as she moves forward in her life, she will lose a part of herself. In “Light in the Sky,” a young pregnant woman contemplates motherhood while in a boat with her mother on La Parguera. This is another young woman facing an impossible choice: “Instead of making an appointment at an abortion clinic, I made travel reservations…to see the wonders of Puerto Rico.” What she witnesses instead is her elegant mother’s transformation into a woman who peels fruit with her teeth and believes in UFOs, a woman with a connection to Puerto Rico that she will never have.
“Love War Stories” is the final piece in the collection and beautifully sums up so many themes: love as battlefield, as belief, as impossible expectation. The narrator, Rosie, describes a war between mothers and daughters centered on a belief in love: “we started this war against our mothers: to believe in love… to believe and not marry.” Mothers say “Never trust a man,” and want their daughters to marry, while Rosie suggests they never marry but believe in love. When Rosie defies her mother, her mother beats her: “and for each stroke there was a story. She took me through history, through all the ages telling me about the plight of las mujeres.” Rosie and her friends organize, host consciousness-raising sessions, wear leather jackets, read about revolutionaries, and rally against their mothers. They go off to college and fall in love, except Rosie, and when her friends are all dumped by their boyfriends and voice their heartbreak to her, she replies, “I never said love was easy, but I wanted us to believe in it because I thought it could be a balm on future hurt and make us better people.” Rosie wants belief in love and relationships to be two different things. In her struggle to understand the nature of love she visits her father who can only tell her that, “Love gets forgotten in daily living.” At the conclusion of the story, Rosie’s mother tells her that there are no sides in this war but instead, “We move back and forth, always back and forth.”
Throughout this collection Rodriguez writes brilliantly of love, life, and loss. Her characters struggle against the constraints of others’ expectations and try to find ways to realize a belief in love against the reality of their histories.