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You might expect Dominican-American Loida Maritza Perez's remarkable first novel to brim with warm, hazy memories of the homeland (and be cut with the immigrant's shock of immersion in a new culture). That's why the intimate scale of Geographies of Home comes as such a surprise: The action happens within the family. Home is not in our native countries; it is in our hearts and memories.
Aurelia, Papito, and their 14 children left Trujillo's Dominican Republic for New York years before. Aurelia's only law is love for her children and grandchildren. Adventist deacon Papito fears for his daughters' safety and tries to beat that fear into them. Prodigal daughter Iliana is torn between independence and family loyalty. Troubled Marina sees visions of spiders and God. Rebecca cannot leave the husband who beats and degrades her.
Perez weaves the story by smoothly shifting the point of view among the characters and their memories. The conflicts and tension are not unique to the immigrant experience; they'll be achingly familiar to almost every reader. Should Iliana fulfill herself at college, or return home to help her family? Is seeking psychological help for Marina the same as betraying her and shaming the family? How long will Aurelia try to salvage Rebecca's life for her, and how far will she go when the grandchildren are at stake?
The pleasures of Geographies of Home are like those of a memoir: The characters are complex and real, and their memories are vivid and full of emotional detail. Perez deftly handles each character's blend of passionate and conflicting emotions.
Though her book threatens to burst with color and life, Perez has woven it tightly. She writes boldly and precisely of love, bitterness, desire, sin, madness, fear, and forgiveness. She describes the tiny geography of the human heart.
Robin Taylor is a reviewer in Washington, D.C.