As Marisel Vera shows in her enthralling new novel, “The Taste of Sugar,” there’s nothing particularly original about President Trump’s abuse of Puerto Rico. In fact, the U.S. response to Hurricane Maria was a grim echo of the U.S. response to Hurricane San Ciriaco more than a century ago. In 1899, that record-breaking storm decimated the island just a year after the Americans “liberated” Puerto Rico from Spain. With thousands dead and the food infrastructure in ruins, this territorial jewel suddenly curdled into an irritating burden on the U.S. treasury. Equally incompetent and greedy, the administrators appointed by President William McKinley cut deals with plantation owners that, as Vera describes it, “reestablished Puerto Rico’s centuries-old feudal society.”
But Hurricane San Ciriaco is merely the hinge at the center of “The Taste of Sugar.” Vera, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents, begins her story in the tumultuous years of the early 19th century. The Spanish governor has redesigned the labor system so badly that most sharecroppers live as virtual slaves. A thicket of fees and taxes has crippled once viable small coffee farms. After sketching out the course of financial demise, Vera arrives at two young people who will be the focus of this epic.
Valentina seems at first just a silly teenager, a pampered member of a small middle-class society in the city of Ponce. Her parents hope to marry her off to a wealthy older man, but Valentina is much enamored of French romance novels. The moment she spots a handsome coffee farmer at a party, it’s love at first sight.
The object of her affection is 21-year-old Vicente. He’s perfectly candid about his modest position and limited prospects, but Valentina is more interested in his gorgeous eyes. After they’re married and she returns with her new husband to live with his parents, she discovers that life is not always like a French novel.
The style of “The Taste of Sugar” is heavily inflected with Spanish words and phrases, conveying the rich linguistic culture of this place. And sometimes, without warning, Vera drops her own narrative voice and shifts into the higher register of a character’s excited monologue. It’s a tremendously enlivening dramatic effect.
One of the many pleasures of this story stems from Vera’s emotional range. Initially, there are elements of romantic comedy in the newlyweds’ cramped situation: Valentina had no idea her husband was so poor, and Vicente had no idea his wife was so talentless, as his disappointed mother keeps pointing out.
But Vera pursues something more serious amid all this domestic awkwardness. She’s interested in the way these two young people mature, the way their infatuation solidifies into profound devotion. The first hardship they endure may be a humorous lack of privacy, but eventually they’ll suffer the most painful tragedies a couple can confront. That could certainly break Valentina or cast her disillusioned husband into violent bitterness, but in a sense, “The Taste of Sugar” is a corrective to those French melodramas that Valentina once devoured: It’s a passionate love story purified in the crucible of suffering.
All these intimate and finely drawn details are nested within a masterful work of historical fiction that traces monumental economic and political currents. After all, like millions of others, Valentina and Vicente’s lives revolve around the cultivation of two of the most widely desired substances in human history: coffee and sugar. In pursuit of those commodities, fortunes have been risked and lost, nations have been sold and brutalized. Vicente’s modest dream of owning a little land and harvesting fine beans looks so poignant in the context of global market forces he’s barely aware of. But Vera never reduces him or any of her characters to mere cogs in this vast system. Her vision is always grounded in this hard-working family, their struggles, their flaws, their persistent decency.
Once the Americans bring “the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization” and the San Ciriaco hurricane strikes the island, “The Taste of Sugar” becomes a kind of Latino “Grapes of Wrath.” Starving, desperate for work and enticed by promises from deceptive recruiters, some 5,000 Puerto Ricans — including Valentina and Vicente — are lured to Hawaii. But for all they know of what’s in store, it might as well be the moon. From this bizarre and tragic historical footnote, Vera has reconstructed a shameful era of America’s past.
One of the great challenges of globe-spanning stories about the forces that raise and cripple nations is maintaining a fragile realm of free will in which ordinary characters can still act, even in their highly oppressed circumstances. That’s the rich feat of “The Taste of Sugar.” Here, the drama always stays rooted in the suspenseful ordeal of these farmers to whom we grow more and more attached. Vera writes as confidently about the mechanics of international markets as she does about the hopes whispered between grieving lovers.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
The Taste of Sugar
By Marisel Vera
Liveright. 380 pp. $26.95