Why do we fall in love with people we barely know?
In her humorous and poignant memoir of a wedding and an earthquake in the Dominican Republic, novelist Julia Alvarez (How the García Girls Lost Their Accents) attempts to answer this question as she tells the tale of a young worker on her coffee plantation, Piti, and his efforts to make a life by traveling from his home in Haiti to work in the neighboring country.
Alvarez’s friendship with Piti begins when, driving past a neighboring farm, she spies him among a group of his friends playing with kites. She snaps a picture of his smiling face and shows him the picture when she returns, and he beams with wonder and gratitude. On subsequent trips from the U.S., Alvarez brings him jeans, a shirt and a bag in which he can carry his belongings as he makes the often dangerous border crossing from Haiti into the Dominican Republic.
Piti soon becomes a worker on the Alvarez coffee farm, and Alvarez grows closer and closer to this young man. One evening after supper and a night of singing with Piti and the other workers at her little house, she makes one of those “big-hearted promises that you never think you’ll be otherwise called on to keep”: She promises that she’ll be there on Piti’s wedding day.
In early August 2009, Alvarez receives a message from Piti informing her that his girlfriend, Eseline, has had a baby and that the two are getting married on August 20. Recalling her promise, Piti eagerly asks if Alvarez and her husband Bill will be attending the wedding. Reluctant at first, for she is scheduled to attend the Intergenerational Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers the week of the wedding, Alvarez realizes that she cannot break her promise, so she and Bill make arrangements to attend Piti’s wedding.
Alvarez’s arduous trip to Eseline’s home reveals the unsettled political and cultural character of Haiti, as various crossings of checkpoints involve bribery and haranguing guards. Once they reach Eseline’s village, the wedding commences and celebrates the new union between the two young people with enchanting singing that the attendees never want to end.
A year later, Alvarez and Bill embark on another, more trying and difficult journey, as they return to Haiti following the disastrous earthquake in search of Piti’s family and friends. Through all the devastation, Alvarez recalls the lesson that her love for Piti and his family have already taught her. Once we have become involved in something, she tenderly and forcefully points out, that relationship transforms us, and we have an obligation to it.