Fruit of the Drunken Tree

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 14 Aug 2018

Member Reviews

Women have been secondary characters in war stories often enough that it’s jarring when when we are presented with a literary breath of fresh air like the main characters in Fruit of the Drunken Tree. But the real reason you should pick up Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ novel set in Pablo Escobar’s Colombia is not novelty, or because she’s smashing the patriarchy. Read it for the atmospheric dread and suspense that will sneak into your bones as you follow the stories of compelling characters who happen to be girls. 

The book opens in the height of the drug wars in the 1980s and ’90s in Colombia. Escobar looms as a boogeyman around every corner for young Chula, except in her gated upper-middle-class neighborhood in Bogotá, where her family isn’t as wealthy as some neighbors but can afford to hire a girl to clean and do her mother’s bidding every day.

Something about the quiet (or stunned?) countenance of the girl they hire, Petrona, compels Chula. Her curiosity turns into a connection, mostly unspoken, because Petrona — barely a teen, clinging to what’s left of her family on a hillside slum over Bogotá — has secrets she cannot share and will not impose on the girl.

Along with Petrona, Chula and her older sister, Cassandra, live in the matriarchy ruled by her sassy, fierce, get-shit-done-any-way-you-have-to mother while their father, a petroleum engineer, is away working on drilling sites. The girls’ mother takes her daughters to another town for a rally for Luis Carlos Galán, who ran for the presidency in Colombia in the late 1980s. The rally marks the first of a series of traumatic events, and the start of the cloud of death casting a pall over the family and, the reader senses, all of Colombia. Chula, Cassandra and their friends are still kids, on the playground, running around the gated neighborhood at night during blackouts to spy on neighbors, but things aren’t quite right. Cassandra destroys her dolls in ways that are upsetting and unnatural to Chula. News of car-bombings, disappearances and kidnappings bookend their days. Being so close at hand, and so constant, death preoccupies their young minds daily. It turns out to be an insidious form of osmosis.

At first, money shelters Chula’s family from some of the atrocities of the cartel, the paramilitaries, and the guerrilla groups (the only thing that’s clear in this time period is that the government, of all entities, certainly is not in control). The chapters told from Petrona’s point of view, though, are a stark flip from Chula’s chapters, even with war’s specters coloring her days. In Petrona’s life in the slum, there is no class-based cushion to the war’s blows. Having a job and working in the gated neighborhood are no escape. In fact, it might be making things worse.

Like Chula and Petrona, Rojas Contreras also grew up in Escobar’s Colombia, and she acknowledges in an author’s note at the end of the novel, “Kidnapping was a reality for many Colombians … If they had not been kidnapped themselves, every Colombian knew someone who had experienced it: a friend, a family member, someone at work.” In fact, she continues, her father was once kidnapped. That is the story we are more accustomed to reading — the kidnapped man, told from his point of view — but, though it surely informed her story, Rojas Contreras has given us hers instead: The haunting story of those left wondering, and the voices of resilience that speak of death and trauma, but also of hope, heart, and life.

Full review at Run Spot Run: http://www.runspotrun.com/book-reviews/fruit-of-the-drunken-tree/
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Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book. This book releases July 31, 2018.

I read Fruit of the Drunken Tree as a part of the September readathon across Bookstagram. Unfortunately I was not able to get into this book. I am not sure what caused the disconnect for me. Reviewing books you didn't enjoy is always hard, particularly when a story is based on someone's real life experiences. And in this case it is even more difficult, because I just can't put my finger on why I never got into this story and connected with the characters. I typically enjoy multi-cultural historical fiction and the opportunity to learn about cultures and time periods I have never experienced. So I was eager to learn about Columbia at the time of Pablo Escobar's regime. But in this case I found myself rushing through the story, not particularly engaged. 

I know many others enjoyed this book. This book may be for you if you enjoy historical, coming of age fiction and if you enjoyed the show Narcos and want to see Columbia presented from a different view.
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A sweeping story of two young girls from the same country, yet drastically different backgrounds, both struggling to make sense of, and survive, the threat of violence which is constantly login g over their community. 

Based on actual events in the author's childhood in Colombia, this novel is beautifully written, featuring  stunningly vivid imagery of South American landscape and culture . At times the story dragged a bit, yet the gorgeous prose ket me tuned in.

Starting with a broad scope and then zooming in, the story shows how history effects a country, community, families and individuals, forever. I suspect this novel will find a role as an important work of literary fiction.
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I can’t stress enough how important that novel is. It’s peculiar how rare we get to look behind the catchy narratives that glorify narcotraficantes and FARC kidnappings, and to have a glance into the lives of women and children, those who suffer the turmoils of Colombia with their bodies and minds, losing them, dying while staying seemingly alive. And I am very happy that Rojas Contreras presents us with this opportunity. However, I was left very unsatisfied with the distribution of narratives in the book. 
The narration is mostly from the POV of Chula, who is precocious, curious, and very well written. Her chapters are near perfect. The other narrator is Petrona, Chula’s family’s teenage maid, who becomes a source of Chula’s obsession and, ultimately, the source of Chula’s family downfall. A girl from the slums who lives a dangerous life and has to make tough choices is by all means a more interesting character than Chula. Yet the chapters that Petrona is allotted are never fleshed out enough, always verging on dream sequences. And sometimes it makes sense for them to be abstract, but most of the time comes off as lazy on behalf of the author. 
Throughout the book I kept wondering why Rojas Contreras made that narrative choice, and why neither the agent, nor the editor, nor anyone else stopped her? Besides looking half-baked, these short, abrupt, unimaginative chapters do not serve in any way to inform the plot (all of the details in them could be told using an omni 3rd) but they further perpetuate the class divide that exists between Chula and Petrona. Chula is the one who deserves an imagination and a curious mind because she is a nice clean girl from a middle class house. Petrona is caught in the system and left to be a martyr with no inner world outside of the suffering she sees. I was very unhappy about this politically, and think this is a major failure on behalf of all involved in the book’s making. I would have wanted to read the narrative from Petrona’s POV, but if not, at least I would have preferred not to see the little glimpses of what is supposed to be her “POV”. Chula would have served better on her lonesome.
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This book was a heavy read, but a solid one. The two perspectives - one of an upper-middle-class girl, and the other a lower class girl who lives in the slums - were starkly contrasted, yet intertwined wonderfully. Having visited and lived in countries with such harsh delineations of class, this book really resonated with me, especially with the Chula's mother hiring "poor girls" to clean the house so they could theoretically have upward mobility like she herself did. This was a beautiful story set in a time that was anything but in Colombia.
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Stellar in its simplicity.... I'm also a fan of Hum If You Don’t Know the Words (a novel told partially from the perspective of a 9-year-old girl) which also deals with harsh realities of violence under a troubled or corrupt government.  In that case it was the Apartheid in South Africa in the '70s, in Contreras' story it is Pablo Escobar's manipulation of Colombia as conflict peaked in the '90s while the guerrillas daily threatened the lives of the citizens.

I enjoyed her choice to write a novel despite what may or may not be rather autobiographical details included, because of the liberty she had to paint sadly beautiful portraits of the Santiago family and their housemaid, Petrona.  Chula, the main narrator is looking back from her new home in America, just after she'd received a communication from Petrona, now a wife & mother still in Colombia.  A few chapters were in Petrona's voice and provided some death to the real hardships of living in a shack with a curtain for a door, on top of a hill, high-rise condos in view but totally inaccessible.  

Chula's observational tone mixed with her occasional wise words questioning the status-quo etc. really lent itself well to the gruesome heartbreak that could befall any average family in such an uncertain time.  I read through this slowly not just because the subject matter was hard to inhale all at once, but also because I didn't want it to end.  Contreras has a very smart style.  I was wholly sucked into the story.
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Absolutely breathtaking! My favorite year of 2018 so far because of how personal the story was to me. In Fruit of the drunken tree, Ingrid Rojas Contreras manages to capture the rawness of the Colombian narcorafico in the 90's and the consequences it had on every single person, no matter the social background.

The story was told in a beautiful was, real, honest and without glamorizing the narco war or its participants. It is told just as it was, intimidating, scary but at the same time full of little pockets of something close to happiness. It something that lots of us would love to leave in the past but also, in a weird way celebrate because we came out victorious and molded us into who we are.

I saw my childhood, my upbringing and what I lived through reflected in every single page and it became such a personal, intimate narration of what I too remember happening. I cried. Yes, I cried not because I was sad but because I mourned for Chula's and my own loss of safety, of the sense of normality, of childhood and innocense, but I also laughed, because I remember the days of playing Rin Rin Corre Corre, what is was like to grow up with a strong willed mother and because I also witnessed the life changing effects of kidnappings. I also look back to the nights when I stayed up  hidden under the blankets listening to Las voces del secuestro and praying away bad thought about my loved one's fate.

I'm sorry if this review is not well structured, I guess what I wanted to say is that few books have touched me like this one did. Thank you Ingrid Rojas Contreras.
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Please give this book all of the awards.  It's brilliantly written.  The interwoven stories feel incredibly authentic and perfectly suited to sharing the sometimes dark nature of the events falling around these characters.  Such a refreshing angle on a topic that's been always been focused on Pablo Escobar without considering the consequences of all of the people affected from his turmoil.  I can't wait for it to become available in paperback so that I can put it on my book club's schedule.  It's going to be a favorite read for the group without a doubt.
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I truly wanted to enjoy this book more and there were parts that I very much did. The setting is evocative and the prose is written beautifully, though some detail was a bit wanting. Also, the theme  and plot represent an important topic in our current culture through a fictional, and therefore maybe more relatable format than the nightly news cycle.

 Unfortunately I couldn't seem to connect with the characters. It's like they were all just a little too far away to really empathize with. Chula, as a child, was both too clueless and too wise for her age for me to find her believable and all of the other characters in her family seem very distant and at times downright confusing. Petrona was my favorite, if I had to pick, because her motivations had purpose and she featured a complexity that was very real to me. 

All in all, I think this book just wasn't for me as the other reviewers seem to have very much enjoyed it. I think reading a story like this one is important though. I do think I have a better appreciation for the plight of refugees and the situation in Latin and South American countries from my spot in the US. So I would still recommend it but with reservations. 

Note: I received a free Kindle edition of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank NetGalley, the publisher Doubleday Books, and the author Ingrid Rojas Contreras for the opportunity to do so.
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This is hard because I really wanted to love this book.  The subject matter being so important today and historically. I just never connected or really cared about the main (Chula) and secondary (Portuna) protagonists. I always felt like I was only getting 75% of their thoughts or observations.
It’s imperative that as Americans, we understand what is happening around the world. Particularly, i. Latin America. And Fruit of the Drunken Tree does this.  What makes people become so desperate that they would leave their entire lives, their loved ones, to come here and what forces some to stay?  How do people fall victim to a life of crime and violence?  How does desperation manifest itself? The author answers all of these questions.  I just wish I had connected with the characters more. The descriptions were lacking. I had a very hard time placing myself there.
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Thank you for the free review copy, Doubleday Books. What a page turner! The complicated relationships and interesting characters wouldn't let me put down this book. This is an eye-opening story about the Escobar and the Colombian drug cartel in the 90s.
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Ingrid Rojas Contreras delivers a beautifully written story of 2 young girls during Escobar's reign in Colombia. Seven-year-old Chula and her sister Cassandra are privileged children growing up in a gated community with loving and protective parents.  Their live-in servant, Petrona, is a young teenager, around 14 years old when she begins working for the family.  Petrona is from the same slum as Chula and Cassandra's mother.

The story is told from the points of view of Petrona and young Chula.  We learn about life in the slums and the dangers that the guerrillas and the paramilitary groups pose  to the poor citizens in the slums and to ordinary middle class citizens.  During Escobar's time, the top government officials, judges, the Minister of Justice and those employed as oil engineers for multinational companies are not safe from the violence.   In Fruit of the Drunken Tree, we learn just how vulnerable society and citizens are to the violence and corruption.  But we also see the innocence of young Chula and her connection to Petrona.  

Petrona carries the weight of her household on her shoulders, working and sending the funds to her many siblings and mother. When she falls in love with a young guerrilla, she does not expect him to manipulate her or demand sacrifices from her family and employers.  Fruit of the Drunken Tree is beautiful, heartbreaking and engrossing.
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What a beautiful book. The story is so layered and the characters perfectly developed. I felt like I was right there with Chula and her family--through all the ups and downs. The book just has HEART, plain and simple. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is a powerhouse of a novel. I think it's going to be a hit with book clubs.
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This one really let me down. I wanted so much to like it but if I’m honest I was bored out of my mind.   I considered quitting a few times but I had a lot of hope something exciting would happen.  Nope, even the telling of the attempted kidnapping was boring. 

I won’t be recommending this one
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First of all, I was really attracted to the cover of this book and the unusual title.  It is set in Columbia during the drug cartels, so it was a book about a topic I hadn’t read much about.  In addition to this, though, it is also somewhat of a coming of age story.

The story is told from the perspectives of two characters.  The first is seven-year-old Chula Santiago who lives with her family in a gated community to protect them from the political unrest and dangerous drug activity in their town of Bogata.  Chula lives with her older sister, Cassandra, and their mother.  Her father works for an oil company that is not nearby, so he is seldom around.  As a result,  the mother hires impoverished girls from the guerilla driven areas to live with them and help with the household duties.  One of these girls she hires is thirteen-year-old Petrona who is working to support her family.  Petrona’s story provides the other perspective of a young girl growing up and struggling to survive.  Unfortunately, she also falls in love with one of the bad guys who brings danger to the Santiago family.

Apparently, this story was somewhat based on that of the author and her family’s experiences which adds to the story for me.  It could be a little slow at times for me, but overall I really enjoyed it and learned something new.  It made me really think about how tragedies and growing up in such a dangerous time profoundly affects children.   If you enjoy historical fiction and reading about the experiences of people in other cultures, you should try this one.
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The time period for the story is during Pablo Escobar's reign in Columbia. The point of view is told from Chula who is nine years old and Petrona, their maid, who is a teenager. While not wealthy, Chula is part of one of the better off families. They live in a gated community and it is really interesting to see everything unfold through her eyes. Petrona is worse off. She lives in a hut made of tin and plastic in a place called an invasion. 

Chula is so innocent and relates to us everything that she sees, leaving us to draw the conclusions as she is too young at times to realize them on her own. It really broke my heart so many times to see her being an innocent girl in a horrible time period.

Petrona at so young an age has had a difficult life already, yet she still carries a strong moral compass that at times is put to test in the worst possible ways. I also felt for her so much! The trials she endured while being the head of household was something no one of her age should have to deal with. I cried a few times along with her.

This was one of those books that will stay with me for awhile. Yes, it was a work of fiction but it was loosely based on factual events. The things that happened during this time period in Columbia were just horrible. I can't imagine what it must be like to live in fear day after day. The crazy thing about it is that things like this still happen in many countries and we rarely hear about it.
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This book was not my normal genre of choice, but I heard a lot about this book, and thought I would give it a try. I found it to be very intriguing. It covered a lot of issues. And it kept me interested. Some parts were rather slow, but it did not take away from the enjoyment.,

I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book.  All thoughts and opinions are my own
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The writing was beautiful and the girls’ stories compelling, but I wish they’d been a little more balanced as the narrative heavily favored Chula and her family’s experiences. I was interested to find out that the story is based on the author’s life, though it was clear she was deeply familiar with her topic. There were definitely moments that begged for additional explanation or background to make it a bit more understandable for someone like myself, who knows very little about Colombia and its past.
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I received a digital ARC of Fruit of the Drunken Tree from Doubleday on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Doubleday for their generosity with this powerful and timely read.  All opinions are my own.

Synopsis
Set in the 1990s, Fruit of the Drunken Tree follows the Santiago family, presented primarily through the eyes of the youngest daughter, Chula, and their new maid from the guerilla-controlled slums, Petrona.  Chula is immediately fascinated with Petrona while Petrona finds herself pulled in too many directions at once—forced to leave her own family to care for another, all while falling in love for the first time.  As the conflict in Columbia between the paramilitary and the guerillas escalates, with Pablo Escobar at the center, Chula and Petrona are forced headlong into a crisis that will permanently alter both their lives.

Narrator
Though Chula is older when the book opens, the majority of the book takes place in her early childhood.  My knowledge of world history is woefully full of holes and there’s a giant one where Columbia is on the map.  This created a bit of a problem for me since my understanding of what was happening was limited to Chula’s understanding and her understanding was limited by her age and her parents’ sheltering her as much as they could from what was going on. This is where I shamefully admit that Wikipedia aided in my reading.  Are there better and more authoritative sources of information out there?  Yes.  Did I have them immediately available on my phone while I was reading?  No.  So Wikipedia it was.  Chula discusses Pablo Escobar (heard of him), Galan (nope), and the fight between the military, paramilitary, and guerillas (nope x 3) as if the reader knows what is going on with these people—this is where Wikipedia was helpful, to give me a basic primer on who was aligned with whom and why.  If you also don’t know the basics of Escobar, Galan, and the struggle between those three groups, a quick bit of research to familiarize yourself with Columbia in the 90s will probably be helpful.

Chula isn’t an unreliable narrator, or at least, not deliberately so.  She is, however, naïve and, therefore, limited.  For example, she stays within the gated compound guarded by security guards—and yet because she wasn’t preoccupied by how this limited her life, I wasn’t thinking about the reason for this set-up being to prevent kidnappings.  Chula presents her life at face value and it is easy to be lulled into the false feeling of safety that she generally feels.  The action and events as the book approached its climax seemed all the more shocking when they happened—as Chula didn’t see them coming, neither did I.  It wasn’t until the end of the book when I had a firmer grasp on what was happening that earlier events and statements in the narrative took on a deeper meaning.  In many ways, this naivety was welcome—experiencing the book as Chula experienced her life was a new experience for me as a reader.  Because I didn’t know where the narrative was going, I was sucked in and everything felt fresh.  

Class
Fruit of the Drunken Tree is steeped in class issues that are highlighted by Chula’s ignorance of her place within Columbian society and her mother’s low-stakes attempts at being the upper-class savior of Petrona.  Chula lives a charmed life in Bogota behind the fences of her upper-class neighborhood, though like most young children doesn’t realize it.  Indeed, there is a much richer woman who lives nearby whom Chula and her friends call “The Oligarch” without irony and without appreciation for their own deeply privileged place within Columbian society.  When her family hires a new maid, Petrona, Chula comes to care deeply about her and sees her as a friend, in the way of children who think it is possible for the thirteen year-old maid to be the best friend of the seven year-old girl she waits upon.  

Even Chula’s mother who grew up in the slums herself places herself in the role of savior, forcing a fancy First Communion upon Petrona, yet failing to act as savior when the stakes are higher.  As Americans, we so often want to put ourselves into this role—we want to save the less fortunate by giving them the things that cost very little or nothing to us.  Yet when we are in the position to do more, to actually put action behind what we say we believe, we don’t—these acts will cost us more than we are comfortable giving up.  It is in the moments when our comfort outweighs our compassion that our privilege is perhaps most highlighted.

Recommended
At a time when white men still tell most of our history, Fruit of the Drunken Tree (though fiction), is a highlight of female storytelling.  Here are the girls and women forced to be brave in the chaos and conflict of 1990s Columbia.  Fruit is a story of the many forms of female resilience.    This book was a highlight of my reading so far this year and will likely earn a place on my Best of 2018 reading list at the end of the year.

Notes
Published: July 31, 2018 by Doubleday (@doubledaybooks)
Author: Ingrid Rojas Contreras (@i_rojascontreras)
Date read: August 12, 2018
Rating: 5 stars
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Never be afraid of consequences, Ninitas. They’re the greatest teachers don’t you know. 

If I am being honest, I only know of Pablo Escobar because of the show Narcos. Not that I have spent any time watching it, but I’ve worked with some gentlemen that were gaga over the series. But they were memorized by the blood, gore and brutality. So, I went into this story fairly blind only knowing he was a bad, bad man. I didn’t have any detailed knowledge or understanding of the terror that the people of Colombia suffered DAILY. I had no insight into the fact that MOST families had members kidnapped by guerrillas. Or if they were not directly affected, they knew many other families who had been. These people lived in complete terror every day of their lives during the early 90’s. A time when I was freshly hatched, but had assumed (Ayo, we already know!) that the world was civilized due to how advanced we had become. I was incredibly wrong and thanks to this story, I gained insight from the perspective of someone who had lived survived through the Escobar era. 

This story is mainly told from the point of view of Chula. A young female living in the wealthy portion of the nation. Which is the exact role that Ingrid lived through. We go through some rather big events with Chula and her family. Some issues so huge it leaves a lasting effect on Chula as she grows older. Which makes a great amount of sense since some events were incredibly terrifying and something that shouldn’t be experienced by any human being let alone a child. There was so much value in reading about the Escobar era from a child’s perspective. I’m not sure I would have received it the same coming from Chula’s mother, Alma. The other perspective is from another young girl, 15-year-old, Petrona. Petrona enters the lives of the Santiago’s as their maid. We learn that Petrona is the main financial support for a large family (half whom have been taken by guerrillas), while she supports about the six remaining members including her sick mother. We learn the harsh decisions that children like herself had to make to survive those terroristic times. 

There were some other mentionable characters that stuck out in this story such as Alma, Chula’s mother. Alma is such a strong female character. She grew up in poverty and rose to a gated community. While most might think it had to do with her beauty, you quickly learn her rise had more to do with her fighting spirit. While she was far from a perfect mother, she was a role model with a stubborn side. While scared shitless by her circumstance, she moved forward. Alma isn’t a woman to look back, only forward. And I think that is one of the greatest lessons I learned from Alma. 

Another character to watch out for is Gorrian. Though his part is rather small, the progression of this boy is something to keep an eye on. 

Overall, I really enjoyed and found great value in this story. The outcome was never perfect. But they all managed. Which I know isn’t true for many who suffered through Escobar’s evil reign. This story made me do some research. It made me seek out information on what was happening during the early 1990’s. I’m hardly a history buff, but during times like today, it is important to know and understand world history.

Also, read the author notes. I often skip over those. But I found great value in the excerpt. 

I would highly recommend checking out Fruit of the Drunken Tree. Thank you NetGalley for providing me with a copy to this fantastic, brutal story of life, loss and family.
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