BOOK REVIEW: Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo

Published by Ecco/HarperCollins (August 1, 2023), Hardback – $30, 384 pages
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Reviewed by Ashley Riggleson

Elizabeth Acevedo had an auspicious introduction to the literary scene when she published her debut Young Adult novel, The Poet X. While Acevedo is a successful writer in the young people’s literature scene, her latest work, entitled Family Lore, is her first novel for adults. And, although I had some problems with this text, overall, it does not disappoint. Acevedo instead proves to be a versatile and gifted writer.

Family Lore, a novel about a Dominican family tells the story of six women (four sisters and two daughters) from multiple perspectives over two generations. We start the novel with the perspective of one of the sisters, Flor, who has the unique and, one would imagine, sometimes burdensome gift of foreseeing death in dreams.

As the novel opens, she has decided to throw herself a living wake, even though she refuses to tell her sisters or her daughter what will happen and when. Told mostly in the days leading up to the wake, Acevedo uses this device not only to tell Flor’s story but also those of the rest of the family, and readers meet all the characters at turning points in their lives.

Matilde, who has not been able to have children, deals with her husband’s long history of infidelity. She’s a talented dancer and when a dance class opens new possibilities for her, she must decide what she wants out of life.

Pastora, who has a nose for truth and had a traumatic past in the Dominican Republic, must come to terms with what happened to her. While Camila, the youngest of the sisters, feels set apart from her siblings because they are all much older.

Meanwhile, the two daughters, Ona and Yadi, must navigate their own relationships and mental health issues.

As each woman prepares for the wake and for the change that is sure to come with it, Ona, an anthropologist, interviews her family members, allowing them to reflect on their pasts and embrace the future.

If Family Lore is about anything, it is that storytelling can lead to healing.

A sprawling novel like this tackles a lot of themes. Death, grief, infidelity, family, immigration, and home, just to name a few. And all these aspects of the novel are explored with nuance and depth.

Additionally, the characterization in this novel is very skillfully done. It can be tricky for novelists to differentiate between perspectives, but all the characters here are so distinctive that it feels as though they live outside of the page.

My only quibble with this novel lies with its plotting. The beginning and ending of “Family Lore” are flawless, and in these parts of the novel, I was happily flipping pages, wanting to know more. But Acevedo was not able to maintain that pace in the middle of the text. While the author is a gifted writer, Family Lore is so ambitious that she sometimes falters.

It is also fair to point out, though, that my opinion of Acevedo’s work has more to do with me as a reader than her as a writer. Family Lore has so much to recommend it that, although it is not a perfect novel, I would still encourage readers to pick it up.

Acevedo can only grow from here. Her characterization and development of themes are so well done that I cannot wait to see what she does next. Family Lore is a promising adult debut.