Feminist novelist Julia Alvarez (How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies), known for her clear, unaffected prose and her keen sense of justice, applies her powers of observation inward in a new memoir, A Wedding in Haiti. In her most intimate book to date, Alvarez delves into her own closest relationships–with her aging parents, her husband and a young Haitian man named Piti. Most of all, though, Alvarez takes us deep into her relationship with Haiti, a land that speaks to her while testing her bonds with others, her confidence in herself and her faith in humanity.
In 2001, Alvarez and her husband, Bill Eichner, meet Piti, a teenager who has crossed the border from Haiti into the wealthier Dominican Republic in search of work–a common trek for young Haitians seeking to earn money for their families. Alvarez and Eichner hire Piti to work on the Dominican coffee farm they’ve just purchased, and watch him rise in the farm’s ranks and become a very successful young man. On one of their many visits to the Dominican Republic, Alvarez promises Piti that she will be at his wedding, if and when he gets married. In 2009, he calls her to cash in on that promise.
Meanwhile, Alvarez’s aging parents are starting to forget key moments of their past, and the loss of their lucidity weighs heavily on her. They have moved back to the Dominican Republic, rendering her relationships with them, her coffee farm and Piti intricately entwined. On one of her visits there, Alvarez forges her way into Haiti’s remote, rural areas to attend Piti’s wedding and falls in love with the country across the border.
A year later, Haiti is devastated by the massive earthquake. Piti, his new wife, and their baby have settled in the Dominican Republic, but with a persistent sense of unease. For every survival they celebrate, they mourn another loss. Alvarez and her husband decide to return to help Piti and his wife by taking them back across the border to see their families, as well as to witness the destruction and reconstruction of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
A Wedding in Haiti is simultaneously heartbreaking and humorous, simple and elusive. Alvarez uses her command of language to convey how language will never be enough to build relationships, nor to rebuild a country. Her stunning conclusion–that we should follow our fears and journey into the darkness to experience the most beautiful things in life–will resonate even with readers who only know Haiti through the lens of foreign media. For Alvarez, Haiti is “the sister I hardly knew,” someone related yet far away. After reading A Wedding in Haiti, you will feel the same way.