Reviewed, 18 June 2022
Bueno: (The Things I Learned from Papi) is a treasure of family lore. The entwining threads of bloodlines and marriages, successes, and losses shape the story of each member. Bueno gathers what it can of the rich Sosa history into a volume, preserving it for future generations. In it, Elsa Sosa explains what she knows of her father’s life and legacy, pulling together tales of family and childhood in the Dominican Republic.
Accompanied by family snapshots, Sosa’s memoir imparts her feeling for the island way of life. She gives airport and shopping advice alongside a basic geography of the island and highlights for tourists. She makes her own memories of homelier stuff. Far from resorts and nightclubs are the rural places and far-flung beaches where the author and her eight siblings spent their childhood. She remembers homemade toys, outdoor games, and cooling off under a waterfall on scorching afternoons. When she returns as an adult, she seeks local vendors, secluded getaways, and authentic tostones. Under the mango tree, Papi sits smoking cigarettes and chatting to pretty women.
Bueno, though it records Sosa family memories, is more a love letter to a departed father. In it, Sosa longs to sort through the past and cement her connection to her immense extended family. Life lessons are hard to discern, unclear until late in the book. Sosa attributes only one piece of wisdom directly to Papi; “He taught us not to spend our lives with regrets, grudges, and to let people live their lives.”
While Sosa explains how she struggles to live up to Papi’s ideal, she comforts herself, knowing she and her siblings doted on their parents in old age. She wrestles with her father’s stoicism, her mother’s domineering, and familial links more complex and fragile than she realized. With gaps in the story, questions left unasked, names forgotten, and connections unraveled, many dimensions of her adored Papi (and Mami), Elsa Sosa will never know.
There is rich material in Bueno, though it’s hard to dig out. The author’s stream of consciousness brings us through flashbacks and flash-forwards so often that Sosa, herself, loses track of her trajectory. Sometimes we hear the same advice twice. Other times, forgotten details leave holes in the stories that make them difficult to interpret. While Sosa can tell us virtually nothing of her parents’ early lives and even less of their ancestors, we hear travel directions and culinary recommendations multiple times. She observes near the end of Bueno that she is a keen photographer, recording memories throughout her life with a camera, not in writing. Like photography, memoir writing is a refined art requiring many years to master.
Thanks to Reedsy Discovery for an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title. Bueno (The Things I Learned from Papi) launches on 15 July 2022.