Book Review: Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo

Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo tells the story of the Marte sisters, Flor, Pastora, Matilde, and Camila and their daughters Ona (short for Anacaona), and Yadi (short for Yadira). The women of the Marte family all possess a form of magic; Pastora can see the truth in others, Camila can put together herbal concoctions for any ailments, Ona apparently possesses a magic vagina, Yadi has an intense affinity for limes, and Flor can predict when people will die. Matilde is the only Marte sister that doesn’t have a magical gift, though one can argue that her gift lies in the fierce love and loyalty she has to her loved ones. Though for Matilde, and the rest of the Marte women, the gifts are a double edged sword.

Flor’s gift compels her to plan a living wake for herself, after seeing a documentary on one as recommended by her daughter Ona. The story follows the events leading up to the wake, intertwined with stories of the Marte sisters’ childhood to give us an understanding of their upbringing but also to explain why they are the way they are. It’s evident that the Marte sisters have a strong bond, though in pairs as Flor and Pastora and Matilde and Camila, have stronger bonds with each other than they do with all of their sisters. In the planning of Flor’s living wake, secrets come to light that threaten the sisters’ close bond, and the ladies are forced to face the secrets head on in order to move forward.

The themes that run through the veins of the book are of course, the magical realism of the Marte sisters’ gifts, but also life and death. While it could seem unbelievable that they have magical gifts, in Dominican culture, these things are known and can be seen as normal. As a Dominican woman, I’ve seen this myself and while skeptical at first, I stopped questioning it and just accepted it. Some things just don’t make sense, and regardless of how you may try to inject logic into it to make it seem real, the logic doesn’t exist but it feels real anyway. I’ve had my fair share of listening to stories of women in DR who dream about deaths, and the dream symbolism shown in the book regarding dreaming of teeth falling out indicating death, so the Marte sisters’ gifts didn’t seem farfetched to me. Though I will say, Ona and Yadi got the short end of the stick with their gifts – I’m not sure how a magic pussy and an affinity for limes is as useful as their moms/aunts gifts but I digress.

As the family plans for Flor’s living wake and what they think will come next, there’s also a lot of talk about life in the book by way of pregnancy. Matilde was unfortunately unable to have kids despite desperately wanting a baby of her own. Given her marriage, I’d say it was divine intervention that she didn’t. Ona is experiencing similar issues with fertility as she’s struggling to become pregnant as well. There are two other instances of pregnancy that are connected to Matilde and Ona in the story, which affects how they feel about their own fertility but also becomes a catalyst to their futures. It’s interesting that life and death became intertwined in this story because given the plot, you’d think the focus would remain on death and have this sort of somber feel to the story, which it does, but because it’s balanced out by this other focus on pregnancy and babies; it lightens things up to allow room for both to be in consideration.

Overall, I did enjoy reading Family Lore, especially after attending Elizabeth Acevedo’s book signing event last month. I was excited to see my culture on paper and easily followed through the varying POVs of the Marte women. Despite that, I did feel like the story dragged towards the middle. I understand the importance of showing the women’s past to understand their present, but some of the flashbacks felt unnecessary and made parts of the story a little boring.

All in all, I give Family Lore four stars for its compelling story and for being a wonderful representation of Dominican culture. It was my first Elizabeth Acevedo book, and hopefully not my last.

Have you read Family Lore? Let me know in the comments!

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