This is a debut novel by a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a classmate of my friend’s daughter. While that influenced me to pick up this book, it was already on my radar, especially after seeing Ron Charles’s review in the Washington Post.
When we meet Olga, she is an over-the-top wedding planner for the super-rich, charging high prices and finding ways to scam her clients for additional money. Having gone to an Ivy League college and having become a successful entrepreneur, she was the perfect one in the extended family and she was planning to highlight the contrast at her cousin’s upcoming wedding. At this point although it was entertaining, I was not sure how admirable I would find the book.
Ultimately I found it to have an appealing array of characters, some background about Puerto Rico, and a pleasing romantic interest. Olga’s brother Prieto is a congressman and among his qualities Olga cherishes is his “ability, when with his donors or on television to transform into a person who is white-palatable while still remaining very much himself. He wasn’t quite code-switching so much as he managed, miraculously, to speak several languages simultaneously, creating a linguistic creole of hip-hop, academia, contemporary slang, and high level policy points that made Olga marvel.”
Their mother left them to live the radical life in support of Puerto Rico; she occasionally wrote letters scolding Olga for her choices while she approved of Prieto, until she didn’t.
Olga’s love interest was Matteo, a man she met in a bar after a tough day. She was surprised when he said he sold real estate, given that he was a such a sloppy dresser. Later Matteo confessed he was a hoarder, but it turned out he was discriminating about his collections of items, no old foodstuffs or empty food containers. He turned out to be a gem on many counts.
Then there’s Olga herself: the completely unromantic wedding planner (is that a job requirement?), she finds that the fee in the contract for late payment increases her profit considerably. She does business with Russian oligarchs that eventually is straight out money laundering. She has an affair with the owner of a hardware chain who was the father of one of her brides and is only troubled by the relationship when he leaves his wife for her.
Much of the book is set in 2017 and touches on many contemporary political events. Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico brings together several of the players in important ways. The radical mother has a role there, Prieto, the Congressman visits there and sees his mother for the first time in years, the hardware chain fellow hopes to make a bundle in the disaster.
Xochitl Gonzales, Olga Dies Dreaming, Flatiron Books, 2022, 373 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.