The fact that Aubrey Plaza will play the main character in an upcoming Hulu adaptation of Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut novel Olga Dies Dreaming is the least interesting thing about the book.
Olga Dies Dreaming (Flatiron Books) is everything a novel should be and more. In 369 pages, Gonzalez subjects us to curiosity, heartbreak, lust, intrigue and rage. What takes place in this novel is realistic. In fact, many of the events are lifted from real life. There are no forced happy endings here, just grown adults working through their trauma and learning to live with the hands they’ve been dealt. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Olga is a Brooklyn wedding planner for the 1 percent. She spends her days acquiring expensive napkins, organizing entertainment and catering to the ridiculous whims of her ultra-rich clients. And while her life seems put together on the outside, it really is far from it. Between dealing with her fugitive mother who abandoned her family to fight for Puerto Rican liberation when Olga was just a child, and mourning her late father who died of HIV, Olga has a lot on her plate. Not to mention being there for her closeted Congressman brother who finds himself constantly pulled between doing the right thing for his constituents and maintaining his public image.
But Olga is able to keep her head above the water until hurricane Maria strikes Puerto Rico and sends her world into a tailspin. How do you cope with the devastation of a place that’s in your blood but not below your feet? Is family actually everything? And when is it OK, if ever, to prioritize your own well-being when people are suffering?
Gonzalez does not take the task of writing about these complicated issues lightly. With every loaded question comes a loaded response that is perfectly executed by complex character development and a carefully crafted omniscient narrator. Gonzalez informs her audience about PROMESA, Hurricane Maria and issues of Puerto Rican liberation in a way that is not heavy-handed. Instead, it provides context and encourages readers to do their own research on how these events actually took place outside of the world of the book.
Perhaps most satisfying of all is how Gonzalez makes us sit in the discomfort of microaggressions, class disparity and gentrification, but Olga and her family are not at all pitiful. In fact, they are complex humans that experience tremendous joy in the book as well as trauma. We celebrate their wins, we watch them show up for each other and we laugh along with them as they traverse a difficult world.
This debut is simply impressive. It’s informative, addicting and wonderfully engaging. I cannot wait to read more from Gonzalez and I wish happiness for Olgas all over the world.
Readers should be aware that this book includes sexual assault and violence.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s June 2022 issues.