Book Review: Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo

August 1, 2023

In Family Lore, the first novel by poet and YA author Elizabeth Acevedo, desires exist not only to be satisfied, but for their own sake, whether they can be quenched or not. But that does not mean that the women of the Marte family, having quenched their thirsts, are freed of desires, disappointments, blessings, and curses. In fact, each of their complex encounters with their own desires drives the propulsive force of the novel and makes Acevedo’s debut impossible to put down.

The novel focuses on the sisters of who grew up in the Dominican Republic countryside and, at different times, moved to New York City: Mathilde, Flor, Pastora, and Camila, as well as cousins Ona, Flor’s daughter, and Yadi, Pastora’s daughter. Each has a unique gift, but the novel is framed by Flor’s gift to foretell death from her dreams. At age seventy, Flor has seen her own death and plans to host a living wake for herself.

One of the most compelling features of the novel is its structure as an ethnographic report written by Ona, a trained anthropologist. In offset blocks of text, Ona inserts her own asides to the recording of the history she has compiled from her mother, as well as her aunts and cousin. All of the sisters’ and cousins’ backstory and bochinchar are interwoven with the events of the six weeks leading up to her mother’s living wake. Acevedo, a poet, plays with lineation. It reminds us that while what we are reading is relayed third-hand, there is the lived perspective of a family member who knows the people she’s writing about intimately. The effect is that the reader feels invited to a private conversation or to read a forbidden diary. On the first page, we get Flor’s take on her daughter’s use of their family life as material for her scholarship: “She told it one way. The truth that was not the truth.” The groundwork is laid, then, that, like in any family story, competing and conflicting accounts and feelings emerge as a matter of course.

Additionally, direct transcripts from Ona’s interviews remind the reader that this is documentation; it is meant to be relayed from a point of view that is removed from first-hand experience. The larger story has meaning and poetry that do not come from Ona (except in asides and chapters that start with I) but are lived and learned and felt through her. None of the closeness to the subject matter is lost by making the retelling slightly scientific in this way. Compiled collectively, the Marte family’s wisdom isn’t only Ona’s field material, it is also what she inherits.

For the Marte family, inheritance is female power through desire. Throughout the book, female power is expressed in dancing, cooking and eating, and of course, sex. Ona’s own “alpha vagina” empowers her to control her menstrual cycles, as well as those of the women around her. The bodies’ mysteries are not magic, though, they are lessons. Ona learns she has uterine fibroids, a “heavy uterus” and the possibility she will not be able to have children of her own to inherit her family’s powerful legacy. Her gift ultimately is a kind of funhouse mirror to her mother’s gift of seeing death; she can control the flow of life.

The female body has other cravings in Family Lore. Yadi develops a sudden taste for limes and her constant hunger and thirst lead her to open a vegan café. But her biggest drama is her longtime crush on a boy from high school, Ant, who has been in prison for ten years. When they finally consummate their relationship, her hopes are actually crushed. Ant has been in a relationship with another woman from prison and their fling was a mistake.

Hiding the power of the female body and its desires is central to how both generations of women were raised. The structure of the novel precludes much interaction among all the sisters together until the day of Flor’s living wake. And given the large gaps in their ages, and that they came to the US at different times, there is little in the story that reveals they had similar experiences growing up in the Dominican Republic except to rein in their powers over boys and men. In the countryside, teenage Pastora, whose gift is “reader of people’s truths,” is sent to Dona Yokasta Santana’s grand house carrying the priest’s vestments and linens, holy cloth she was forbidden from touching, implying the impurity inherent in the female body. She rebuffs the advances of one of the Santana boys, knowing his attention is dangerous. Despite her restraint, gossip spread and she “so shamed the family that she needed to be sent away to an entire other province.” Even as a grown woman, Pastora associates her purity with pride, a kind of self-possession that is its own kind of feminine power. Similarly, Mathilde, the oldest daughter, marries a serial cheater (who fell in love with her the first time he saw her dance) and channels her sexuality into dance classes in the elementary school cafeteria at night.

Pastora and Flor pass on how to hide female desire onto their daughters. Yadi speaking to Ona reveals how her knowledge of her own desire and sexuality developed.

“We learned in the shadows, when boys who should not, did. When girls we loved loved us back, right? We learned in the big beds of other people’s parents, didn’t we? On a rare occasion we might have even learned in the sunlight. We might have learned in the quite. We learned as we listened to the still, to the loudness of our hearts. But not from our mothers.”

Flor’s death on the day of her living wake or, as she describes it, her “return,” is rendered as joyful, not sorrowful. Desire is the most powerful force, perpetuating new life despite the many setbacks, losses, and disappointments that come from constant hunger. In death, Flor joins her ancestors in protecting and guiding the Marte women. Ona learns that she has conceived a child that day, the implication being that Flor as ancestor has helped the process along. Death, then is not an ending but a beginning, an opening through which new life emerges.

The cycle of endings and beginnings is renewal and it goes on and on. There is no tragedy in ending because life begins again. Which is exactly what she envisioned for herself and her family.

Publisher: Ecco Books

Publication date: August 1, 2023

Reviewed by Jeannine Burgdorf



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