Esmeralda Santiago
Cambridge, Mass: Da Capo Press, 2004.
ISBN # 0-7382-0820-5
341 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2006

The author bills the book as a memoir, but I chose to read it as a novel. I made the choice for two reasons:

  1. The recent flap about James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, which he revealed on the Ophra show was not all true. He confessed to making up some of his “memoir.” I then followed the national discussion of this genre.
  2. But mainly it was her use of exact dialogues throughout, in a book that covers seven years in time and was published (if not written) nearly 20 years after the time period of the book itself.

Regardless of the genre I enjoyed the book a great deal and believe the writer to be a superior story teller with significant insights about humans reflected in her two main characters.

Esmeralda has come to the U.S. with her mother when she is eight. They fled Puerto Rica looking for a better life. Esmeralda grows up half way between U.S. culture and language and Puerto Rican Spanish language culture.

At age 21 she meets Ulvi Degan, an undocumented Turk living in New York. He is 17 years her senior but they fall in love. To him, she is his “Chiquita,” an innocent, gorgeous young woman whom he can teach and shape. She is attracted to his European manners, his connections in the artistic, political and wealthy circles and his deep attraction for her.

They begin the seven year affair, terminating in a stormy breakup, but one that allows the reader a final sigh of relief: -- She did it! It’s about time…

Why did it take so long for “Chiquita” to become Esmeralda and her own person? It’s really not easy to understand or bear, year author Santiago makes a convincing case – enough of one that even the skeptical reader can’t help but suspect there is indeed much autobiography in what I’ve chosen to read as a novel.

Esmeralda Santiago is an excellent builder of character. She is comfortable in presenting Americans in their culture, Ulvi’s Turkish ness is persuasive, and her mastery of Puerto Rican culture impeccable, and even her insights into the world and culture of East Indian dancing is creditable.

A worthwhile read of an interesting author.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett