Once upon a time I had a job so terrible and a life crammed so full of responsibilities and minor crises that when I got into my car to begin my commute, I would give myself five seconds to fantasize about driving far, far away, so far away that neither my boss nor my children’s school would ever find me. I never actually did that, of course, but I don’t think I’m alone in sometimes daydreaming about it. There is a whole mini-genre of novels about women who walk away from their families: Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, Dana Spiotta’s Wayward, Gayle Forman’s Leave Me, just to name a few.
Xochitl Gonzalez’s novel Olga Dies Dreaming could be one of those stories about a mother freeing herself from the stress and grind of family life. The title character’s mother, Blanca, abandons her children when they are teenagers to pursue a life of political activism in Puerto Rico. She never regrets this choice. “Nothing, Olga, is more valuable than people being free,” she writes in her farewell note to her thirteen-year-old daughter. “Which is why, despite this being one of my own harder choices, I must leave you and your brother.”
On the other hand, you could see Blanca as a modern-day Mrs. Jellyby (minus the colonialism), neglecting the children sitting right next to her in favor of a faraway cause. When the book opens, some twenty years after Blanca’s escape to her homeland, both of her children plainly display the scars of her abandonment Olga is a jaded celebrity wedding planner; her brother, Pedro, is an anxious up-and-coming Congressman. Olga is brisk, efficient, and lonely: she has no friends other than her family, and her main romantic connection is with a wealthy older man who mostly enjoys having her as an ornament on his arm. Pedro is successful but haunted by a personal secret that he can barely admit even to himself, a secret that he is convinced will destroy his career. Both of them are financially successful, but neither of them has ever recovered from the fact that their mother left them. The emotional wounds never close, in part because their mother continues to write them, offering frank criticisms of their current lives.
Olga is under no illusions about the importance of her work, but she believes in her brother. “My mother thinks what I’m doing is stupid and I’m not sure I disagree,” she says in exasperation. “I’m absolutely ‘a slave to the capitalist needs of the White Man.’ Worst of all, I really enjoy money. My brother though? He doesn’t give a shit about any of that. All these City Council guys, these guys in Congress, pocketing this or that kickback so they can buy a house or send their kids to private school? My brother still lives in my grandmother’s house.” But Pedro has made compromises of his own, compromises he had to make to keep his own sense of self afloat, compromises he hopes Olga will never learn about.
For all Olga’s cynicism, Olga Dies Dreaming is ultimately a novel about love, love in all its varieties. Romantic love, yes, but also the love you have for your siblings, for your parents, for your children. Love for your homeland, love for the causes you hold dear, and not least the love you have for your own soul. Almost inevitably, this novel about love is also a novel about betrayal. When you choose between two loves — as Olga’s mother did — the one left unchosen will always feel the sting of rejection. Love and betrayal are inextricably intertwined. As the book continues, both Olga and Pedro are forced to make choices between the people they love and their own needs. For them, too, it is impossible to choose one love without betraying another.
When Blanca left her children, she wasn’t just walking away from them; she was walking toward something, something that felt more important and compelling to her than motherhood. It’s clear she would make the same choice again. Given a different spin, this could be a rah-rah “you go girl” tale of a woman beating the odds to reach her destiny. But Gonzalez forces us to look at the damage done to the people she betrayed when she chose one love over another.