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Sweet Diamond Dust
by Rosario Ferré

Sweet Diamond Dust

Reviewed by Lucy Stark

Rosario Ferré's Sweet Diamond Dust lyrically voices the generation-bridging tale of the De La Valle family and their Puerto Rican sugar mill through the eyes and souls of several family members, longtime servants and dear friends. This hypnotic story traces the many hardships and glories of a rapturous family and their beloved sugar mill; bringing readers face to face with issues of wealth and national pride through the characters that experienced it all.

Originally published under the Spanish title, Maldito Amor (or Cursed Love), Rosario Ferré's adapted translation has introduced American readers to a wealth of family secrets and passions. A finalist for the National Book Award for her 1995 novel, The House on the Lagoon, Ferré continues her tradition of intricately dissecting the lives and loves of characters with whom readers can't help becoming enraptured. Ferré manages to draw her readers into the lives of the De La Valle family, through the deceit, the evil and the betrayal, yet even in their darkest moments, these sometimes seedy characters are likeable, fascinating and unforgettable. Coursing through the blood of Sweet Diamond Dust though is history - the history of a town, a business and a family. For her part, Ferré has definitively grasped the De La Valle history in her hands and aptly illustrates this history through her writing.

This history begins, as Ferré sets it, in the town of Guamani, nestled “on the rolling slopes of Mount Guamani,” (3) in a land with a warm, dry atmosphere and a rich fertile land covering, practically begging to become farmland for what would have been 19th century Puerto Rico's most valuable crop – sugar cane. Like their neighbors around them, the De La Valles own a sugar mill, lovingly named Diamond Dust, which, like the characters that tend to and own it, deals with its own highs and lows. The first owners of the mill that readers are introduced to are Dona Elvira and her fiery and well-reputed husband Don Julio. Don Julio, who courts Elvira in a strange fashion, likened to a “brazen assault, totally lacking in the cloying embellishments of Guamamenan society” (13) quickly asserts his status of administrator of Diamond Dust upon the marriage to Dona Elvira, whose family tended to the mill for generations. However, although it is through his ambitious ideals that the mill finds great success, it is also through his coldhearted, money saving ploys that the workers of Diamond Dust are alienated. When his wife learns of his plans to take the land away from the workers who had so loyally tended it, she valiantly attempts to dissuade her husband. Unfortunately her efforts are in vain, Don Julio explodes, and thus a cycle of abuse and shame is born, hidden in the hearts of the De La Valle family, and passed down generation through generation, just as Diamond Dust itself weaves its way through their lives.

Sweet Diamond Dust continues, tracing the events of the mill through the stories of Dona Elvira's offspring, and of her grandchildren as well. As time passes, the mill gathers more profits, along with more secrets. Lovers and friends are made, and in turn, betrayed. And soon greater misfortune hits Diamond Dust when American entrepreneurs invade the island, buy out all of the other remaining local mills (save Diamond Dust), and consolidate their land into one huge conglomerate with new technology and higher profit margins. The De La Valles uphold their honor and try to keep the mill running, but low demand and even older technology stunt their growth. However, just as the “last locally owned mill in Guamani is to fall in the hands of northern investors,” (58) fate intervenes, and Elvira's son Ubaldino steps in, protecting his family's heritage and furthering the tradition of the sugar mill in his family's life.

While the several plots of this story combine themselves wonderfully, it is the use of perspective that sets Ferré's work above the rest. Throughout the novel, readers become privy to the inner workings of characters on all sides of the De La Valle's history. From the direct musings of Dona Elvira and grandson Aristedes to the close family friend who plans on writing a novel of his own about the De La Valle's many trysts and triumphs, readers are invited further into this amazing world. Perhaps the most interesting perspective though, is that of Titina, the incredibly loyal nursemaid and housekeeper, who sees and hears all, from the other side of the proverbial veil of riches separating her and the rest of the De La Valles. It is through Titina that we see the souls and hearts of the members of the De La Valle family, who over time have become a family of her own. Ferré's true skill is revealed through this method, accurately representing the thoughts of several characters, allowing readers inside their minds – never failing to draw us in, line by line.

Even more stunning than her beautifully drawn characters and plot lines is Ferré's use of language. Within the first few sentences of this novel, one is taken aback by her startlingly poetic style. As detail after detail is described one's senses actually begin to float to Puerto Rico, to Guamani, to the Diamond Dust mill. Ferré somehow finds a way to turn every instance into one of great beauty and importance. As Laura lays on her deathbed, Ferré's glorious poetry shines through, as Laura says goodbye to her life and illuminates perhaps the true moral of Ferré's Sweet Diamond Dust: “death is the twin of love and mother of us all; she struggles equally for men and women and never accepts differences of caste or class. It's death that quickens us and brings us forth on sheets of love, clasped between sleep and wakefulness, barely breathing for a spell.”

In short, Rosario Ferré has excelled in Sweet Diamond Dust. With a majestic plot, nestled in the hills of those Guamani Mountains, along with the De La Valle family and their sugar mill, Ferré exposes the secrets of a family and the glories of a country under pressure from American business threats. All at once, Sweet Diamond Dust explores the life of a family and of a business, through the generations and into our modern world. This novel overacheives in every category: language, plot, character and perspective. Sweet Diamond Dust should not be missed, for like its title, in every aspect this book is beautiful and of course, sweet.