OLGA DIES DREAMING
By Xochitl Gonzalez
What is the American Dream these days, anyway? The term, as coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, described an idealistic vision of the United States as a true meritocracy, where opportunity was equally available to all. Ninety years and a whole lot of systemic racism and widening class divisions later, we have good reason to cast a more jaundiced eye on the concepts of opportunity and equality in this country, and, given how even the bootstrappiest of billionaires can’t seem to find satisfaction in any amount of hoarded wealth, it’s worth wondering what, exactly, we’re supposed to be dreaming of.
Olga Acevedo, the title character in Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut novel, “Olga Dies Dreaming,” struggles mightily with this question. The daughter of Puerto Rican activists — a mother who vanished into an underground life as a revolutionary when Olga was 12 and a father who became a heroin addict and died of AIDS — Olga was raised by her grandmother in Brooklyn, excelled at New York public schools and graduated from an unnamed Ivy League college. As the book opens in summer 2017, she is, at 39, a sought-after high-end wedding planner. Her older brother, Prieto, is a progressive congressman and divorced father who also happens to be a closeted gay man, a secret that has left him vulnerable to blackmail from nefarious (and very much not progressive) real estate developers.
Although she is, on paper, a self-made success story, Olga is also stuck and depressed. After a brief and disastrous foray into reality television, she has “realized that she’s allowed herself to become distracted from the true American dream — accumulating money — by its phantom cousin, accumulating fame.” But the work of manifesting rich people’s matrimonial whims, even though she’s figured out how to profit from it, has come to seem “tedious and stupid.” Disdainful of her clients and frustrated by the financial disadvantage of hewing to strict ethics, Olga enters into some shady business dealings: padding orders for liquor and caviar and selling the surplus. She does this even though she’s noticed that money seems to bring her clients little contentment, that “simply existing seemed an immense burden to them.” She has no real friends, seeks loveless sex with an ultrarich libertarian whose daughter’s wedding she once planned, and, though she’s enmeshed with and supported by her extended family in Brooklyn, is otherwise sleepwalking through a life as confined as her brother’s.