by Cathryn Conroy (Gaithersburg, Maryland): This is a remarkable and powerful story that is also a really good read, but the best description of all comes straight from author Xochitl Gonzalez: It’s a big, weird novel.

It is a novel about a lot of things: Puerto Rican politics, political corruption, the close-knit diaspora of Puerto Rican communities in New York City, and a bit of Puerto Rican history. But more than all that, this is a very human novel—a story about breaking free from social restraints and family expectations and fully realizing your dreams…of becoming who you were meant to be.

This is the story of Olga Acevedo and her brother Prieto Acevedo. It’s the summer of 2017, and the two are part of a large and loving Puerto Rican family in Brooklyn. Still, their lives are grounded in a deep and abiding heartache. They were abandoned by their mother, Blanca, when Olga was 12 and Prieto was 15 when she left the country to follow a fringe figure to fight as a revolutionary for an independent Puerto Rico, while their father left them for drugs, becoming a heroin addict who eventually died of AIDS.

Ivy League graduate Olga, now 41, is the wildly successful owner of an upscale wedding planning business, while Prieto, who is recently divorced with a young daughter he adores, is the U.S. congressman for their Brooklyn district. Olga may plan gorgeous weddings for New York’s upper crust, but she has no love life of her own beyond meaningless sex with a series of men she never allows to get emotionally close. And Prieto may be a political wunderkind, but he is being blackmailed as he harbors a personal secret that he is terrified could erupt in a devastating, personal scandal at any time.

Just as Olga meets a wonderful and loving man named Matteo who may change her life in ways she never imagined, Prieto is so consumed with his own secrets that he shuts out those who love him most, especially Olga. It is Matteo who forces Olga to examine all the secrets and lies that have consumed her family’s past and present. But Olga and Prieto can no longer hide in the emotional armor they have erected around themselves because Blanca comes roaring back in their lives days after Puerto Rico is consumed by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. What their mother asks of each of them after all these years of separation is astonishing in an eye-popping horrifying way, and their reaction to her is equally astonishing in an eye-popping gratifying way. (Oh, this is good!) That said, the ending is a bit unsettling…and maybe a portent of things to come.

I so enjoy reading books about cultures that are not my own because I learn so much. And because this is a novel with a compelling story and vivid characters, I seemingly became part of that culture while I was immersed in the pages of the book. That is the magic of reading. It allows us to embrace an empathy and understanding we wouldn’t otherwise have.