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‘Washed Out, White Out’: A Gentrification Story

But this is also a love story, and love — profound, mundane, imperfect — so warmly suffuses the book its pages practically glow with it. “You’re not alone,” Vladimir assures the unmoored Luz, echoing the solidarity around José García. “We take care of each other.” Natera is an attentive painter of the devotions Robert Hayden called “love’s austere and lonely offices”: Eusebia oiling Luz’s hair and scalp at night, Vladimir refusing to hang up on his daughter first, even on hectic workdays. The novel articulates love at its least articulate: the Spanglish by which mother and daughter communicate, Eusebia having “learned enough to understand Luz, but her body had refused to speak it”; the titular poet’s verses that Vladimir recites to Eusebia upon their New York reunion, expressing love he “couldn’t possibly have ever said with his own words.” A special affection is shined on the story’s vibrant secondary cast, including Angélica, Luz’s childhood best friend, now a mother of twins waiting tables at the members-only restaurant in Midtown where Luz’s colleagues dine; Cuca, Eusebia’s sister, who journeys home to the D.R. for a full-body cosmetic renovation to win back a straying husband; and the Tongues, a trio of gossiping elders who have Nothar Park’s “history sutured inside us.”

Natera’s style is refreshingly direct and declarative, and at its best, this approach feels confident and sharp, a mirror capturing the bleak comedies of life in a threatened community. The Guerreros’ landlord sends out a letter translated into Spanish, a rare courtesy: “They knew it meant trouble.” He’s offering all renters a buyout — “or, sure, they could buy the apartments,” smirks our third-person narrator. When one tenant accepts and flees the neighborhood “faster than a Dominican lotto winner heading back home,” Eusebia and the Tongues watch a truck cart away her possessions, its painted company name, BETTER MOVE, both an advertisement and a warning.

Elsewhere, this straightforwardness can feel heavy-handed. Characters think in blunt abstraction, tediously announcing themes like “the power of prayer, of community, to transform pain and despair from the seemingly devastating hopelessness of fate.” Dialogue lumbers, as when Hudson lectures Luz that “conservation … assures longevity,” defending both his environmentalism and his prissiness about his book collection. As she roasts his hypocritically lavish, energy-sucking townhouse (fair enough!), proclaiming it “wild you have this duality in you,” they sound like no bantering or bickering couple I’ve met. Their attraction, mutual and real despite its historical whiff of patronage and control, suffers too much stale shorthand — “a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing,” “a rare kind of connection” — to be a convincing wedge between Luz and Eusebia. When Hudson offers Luz an ending that strikes a discordant, nearly dystopian note in this otherwise naturalistic novel, the dilemma feels just shy of genuine.

But their thinly realized romance feels like a minor shortcoming next to the book’s oddly vague treatment of Eusebia, whose inner life Natera writes in the eloquent, righteous language of a rallying cry: lines one can imagine hearing from the stage at José García’s vigil, full of passion and conviction, but delivered at a distance. “Helpless people get squashed daily by less powerful structures than this,” Eusebia thinks, gazing at the condos in progress. Broad appeals to “a sacrifice worth something” or losing “everything they loved” are enough, we’re asked to believe, to mobilize an army of neighbors behind Eusebia’s increasingly violent mission.

In one characteristically lyrical but remote passage, Eusebia is surrounded by “the natural noises of a neighborhood, that shut the hostility outside what they’d made here. Somewhere far away, a baby cried … as if underlining what was truly at stake.” Again and again, the mother invokes what they’ve made, what’s at stake, and “what they owed to the walls of this apartment.” When Eusebia rejects her family’s retirement surprise — the bitter prospect of becoming “gentrifiers in their own country” — Luz herself is left wondering, as I was, “what it was about this place that had won her mother over.” Maybe this elusive what speaks to the intangible value of home, to the erasures happening even as we read, to a community’s right to exist without making a case for itself. Still, fiction sings in the specifics, not in the faraway noises, and I longed for a closer, more crisply amplified sense of just how such fierce attachment grew from Eusebia’s alienation, radicalizing this once self-effacing “outsider” into her community’s avenging angel.

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