Julia Alvarez’s seminal 1991 novel, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” was a thoughtful, complex and funny tale about four sisters transplanted from the Dominican Republic to New York. A few years later, “In the Time of the Butterflies” cemented her status as one of the country’s most esteemed Latin American storytellers.
Alvarez’s proven talent may be why “A Wedding in Haiti” disappoints: A memoir, it lacks her novels’ colorful prose and fully drawn characters. It’s packed with the details of a traveler deeply affected by what she’s seen on her journeys — two trips to Haiti over two summers — who nonetheless manages to test the patience of her friends back home with minutiae.
The impetus for her escapades is a young man named Piti, a Haitian farmer living in the Dominican Republic, the divided island’s far wealthier nation where Alvarez spent her childhood and owns a coffee plantation. Alvarez and her husband, Bill, met Piti years ago when they stopped to talk to him by the side of the road. On subsequent trips from Vermont, they brought him gifts, and “a friendship began.” They now consider him their godson, and they traveled to the island to attend his wedding in 2009.
The voyage, in a pickup truck from the Dominican Republic to Piti’s forlorn home town in the northwest corner of Haiti, is fraught with potholes, carsickness and the tension that’s at the heart of this book: Alvarez’s self-consciousness about the inequities between her fortunes and the Haitians’. At one point, a young man gestures toward Alvarez’s jewelry and says, urgently, “I am hungry.” This chastens Alvarez, who writes, “I turn away, reduced to my possessions, feeling the insult of my presence in this place.”
The second trip is in the summer of 2010, six months after the earthquake. She and Bill are driving Piti, who works in the Dominican Republic, and his family back to Haiti for the first time since the wedding. The muted drama consists of horrible traffic jams and Bill’s perpetual grumpiness, along with a detour to devastated Port-au-Prince. Here, Alvarez is disarmingly frank about her role as a mere observer to tragedy: “You tell yourself you are here in solidarity. But at the end of the day . . . you haven’t improved a damn thing. Natural disaster tourism — that’s what it feels like.”
The most poignant parts of the book are Alvarez’s brief interactions with her parents, whose home in the Dominican Republic is the start and end point of these trips. Her mother and father have Alzheimer’s. Alvarez is frightened “as a writer” by the disease’s toll on her mother: “She is losing language. Whole sheets of it have fallen away, planks of family history, elaborate stories. . . . Nothing is left but a pile of pronouns, weak verbs, random words that she picks up, baffled as to what they are for.”
Alvarez hasn’t lost her prodigious skill with language. But when compared with the exquisite prose of her novels, much of the writing here feels clunky: a traveler’s jottings that don’t coalesce into a greater understanding of Haiti or her personal response. In the end, the reader remains as confounded as the writer.
Ianzito is a freelance writer.
A WEDDING IN HAITI
By Julia Alvarez
287 pp. $22.95