Title: Bodega Dreams (ISBN 0375705899)
Author: Ernesto Quinonez
Publication Year: 2000
Review Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
To me, Bodega Dreams reminds me of movies like Boyz in Da Hood. Although from a different cultural perspective, this book has the same unique blend of engaging storytelling and coming-of-age dilemmas that made America think twice about life in the “hood.” Like Boyz in Da Hood and similar creative works, the world is shown from the perspective of a person in the lower class-both the good and the bad. Reading or listening to works about life in the ghetto allowed audiences to interact with the stubborn realism, persistence, and hopes, of the ghetto’s inhabitants despite the unfortunate grim realities that surround them daily. The difference in Bodega Dreams is how that dream is expressed and played out in the life of the four main characters in the story Chino, Sapo, Bodega, and Blanca.
I came across the title in passing while working on a blog post for someone. At that time, the only thing I had to go on was that Bodega Dreams was a book about Spanish Harlem. Since I had an idea of what “inner-city” life was like, I decided to read yet another book about it. I assumed that it would be like all of the other “defying the odds” stories where a single character is helped to “get out of the hood”. This book was a little different and I am glad that it was.
From the beginning, I was impressed with the way I was able to interact with the story. Quinonez uses the authentic language of the characters, their inner thoughts, and their actions to create a compelling and highly realistic story that just grabs you from the first few pages. The book is told from Chino’s point of view and language, so you get a chance to experience Spanish Harlem from his perspective and thoughts. This perspective is strengthened by the author’s expert use of language. Reading the book actually feels like you’re having a live conversation with Chino as he describes parts of his life. When Chino describes his friendship with Sapo, you don’t feel it abstractly, you feel as if Sapo is your friend as well. When Chino feels bad when making a decision, you feel let down. If you have ever experienced life in an “inner city”, you will easily recognize characteristics of the characters in the book. Along the way, you get involved with the stories of people and friends through the good and the bad. This aspect is one of the best parts of the book.
Two other important parts of the book are the characters and the ending. The author does a nice job of portraying realistic characters instead of relying on the characters that are typical in a book about the “hood” and coming-of-age stories. The book does have some of those characters-gangsters, the friend who has a good heart but does the wrong thing, and the good girlfriend-but they are authentic and human instead of stereotypical. These characters also have different layers which become apparent as you progress through the story. Bodega, the character for whom the book is named after, is a case in point. At first, he seems like your typical gangster boss, but after reading a few paragraphs you realize there is much more to him. Bodega is an idealist, businessman, hopeless romantic, and ruthless criminal all wrapped up in human complexity. The way the author portrays this is pure brilliance.
This leads to my next point, the ending. This book had one of the endings that really shocked me. I haven’t been shocked in a while with the ending of most books, since I read so much. This one still shocked me. Everything unraveled so fast, yet in such a realistic way that I dropped the book when I realized what happened. I won’t spoil it here, but it definitely does not end like I expected to. It also doesn’t end with a happy walk into the sunset, which so many books do. The ending here is more mixed, which is closer to reality and more exciting to ponder on.
The only caution I would provide prospective readers is the reality. Quinonez pulls no punches with language and the other “not so pleasant” activities that occur in the Spanish Harlem. He also discusses uncomfortable realities that most people would rather not confront. The book is not overtly filled with violence or drugs, but neither is this element shied away from either.
Overall, this is a great read which you can complete in a couple of hours (200+pages). It’s a deep, engaging story that allows you the opportunity to participate in the lives of people that are so often stereotyped, but never fully embraced in literature. I was impressed with Chino’s story, Bodega’s dream and the humanity that brought it all down.
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