Here’s a newish angle on an old theme: a fictional biography of a person you’ll probably never want to meet. Yolanda Garcia (Yo for short) is charming, soulful, a bit of a screwball. Her folks and her sisters — plus assorted aunts and uncles back in the Dominican Republic where she was born — adore her. But the grownup American Yo is an irritant, a born loudmouth and fibber whose specialty is getting other people into trouble. In other words, she’s a writer, one of those people who, as Joan Didion said, is “always selling somebody short.”
You don’t have to share Yo’s literary ambitions to understand her witchy charm. Julia Alvarez, author of “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” and “In The Time of the Butterflies,” has a nearly irresistible way of portraying her poet-subject. Each chapter of this book is told from a different person’s point of view, as if they all sat down with a tape recorder after a couple of drinks and uncorked their hidden agitations. Yo’s mother, her frou-frou cousin Lucinda, the caretakers at Yo’s old family place in the D.R. and a number of interested men are invited to spill the beans. Even her crazy stalker, a man she doesn’t know, gets to have his say. They all believe she’s selfish, yet undoubtedly trusting and kind. When Yo’s (very personal) books get popular, though, these same people find themselves naked to the world, and they hate it. Still, they forgive her, because Yo has a knack for reconnecting people to the parts of themselves they’ve forgotten. She might even have the same effect on you.
Alvarez’s style is blunt, but so light and eager it’s absolutely captivating. Her eye for psychological detail can move the heart. And she’s funny, too. Just one snag: Is writing such a sacred calling that it justifies Yo’s casual destructiveness? At this book’s least convincing moments, Alvarez comes close to saying yes. It’s when she lets you consider her subject as a small, disobedient planet in the human galaxy that “Yo!” sheds the most light.
Sally Eckhoff lives in upstate New York. She is a regular contributor to Salon.More Sally Eckhoff.