Her name is Maria Flores Ortiz-Santiago, but everyone calls her Verdita, the name that truly defines her. “Your story started long before you left your mamá’s body, before you took your first breath,” Verdita’s father tells her. “Your soul spoke to me from heaven.”
Even though she has a near perfect life on that beautiful island of Puerto Rico, Verdita craves a different world. Once upon a time, she tells us, Puerto Rico was a mountain, but now it is “an island, alone in the middle of the sea.” Verdita wonders “what life would be like if Puerto Rico was still a mountain. Then I could climb down and walk to the States, leave this place. The ocean wouldn’t stand in between.”
In early 1961, Verdita’s 11th birthday is at the center of her increasing determination to separate her own true self from the family and culture into which she was born. Specifically she wants to be American, like the blue-eyed blond girl on the Simplicity pattern. She wants to experience the magical United States, like her cousin Omar. Most of all, she wants life to be other than it is, especially the life that grows in her mother’s womb.
So many of her dreams seem to be within reach, yet each one is snatched away. Santa Claus comes to her village for the first time, but the gifts he leaves for Verdita are tainted by her keen perception. President Kennedy visits the island, but Verdita’s own body prevents her seeing the American icon. She even gets her hair bleached but with predictably disastrous results.
None of the disappointments will diminish Verdita’s obsession with American culture, however. Her first hamburger is very nearly a spiritual experience. “I ate until my stomach pushed into the table ledge. I didn’t even really like the hamburger, but I liked that it came from America.” In the end, Verdita saves the uneaten half of her American classic and takes it home to freeze so that “later, when I wanted to eat America again, I’d have it ready.”
Sarah McCoy’s debut novel covers all the requisite examples of coming-of-age: separation from the mother, yearning for a broader world, confusion about sex. The Puerto Rican setting allows for some lush descriptive passages, which McCoy handles well. The disadvantage to this setting is the need for Spanish words to lend authenticity, and McCoy gleefully sprinkles these throughout the book. Readers with no background in Spanish may grow frustrated; readers who are familiar with Spanish will likely be baffled by Verdita’s inability to speak her native tongue correctly. (For example, when she tires of a game, Verdita declares, “Soy aburrido.”)
Another confusing moment comes when Verdita’s grandmother explains that Mamá is going to have twins. “You have a sister and a brother,” she tells Verdita, even though the babies haven’t yet been born. I’m not an expert in the history of obstetrics, but it seems unlikely that Puerto Rico had such advanced predictive technology in the early 1960s.
Despite the lackluster story and research flaws, there’s still a gentle beauty to McCoy’s writing style. She has a delicate touch with description and her sentences, though simple and straightforward, flow with the grace that few writers exhibit. The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico is charming and not at all bad for a first novel. With this first outing under her belt, I expect that Sarah McCoy’s next offering will be a stunner.