One of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences for a debut author is the first review. My hands trembled as I emailed the PDF advanced reader copy of A Decent Woman to my wonderful early readers in October, and I literally held my breath as I read the first review in my Inbox in late October.
My deep thanks to Yma Johnson, short story writer and journalist, for her generous, in-depth review. I am taking her comments to heart as I give A Decent Woman one more look…and then another look.
“The only thing that prevented me from reading Eleanor Parker Sapia’s A Decent Woman cover-to-cover in one sitting was that I started it at 11:30 at night. The novel begins in 1899 with an evocative description of Hurricane San Ciriaco which leveled the island of Porto Rico – Parker Sapia uses the old spelling of Puerto Rico. We meet Doña Ana Belen, a midwife working in Ponce after fleeing a troubled past in her native Cuba. This lovable heroine is an important fixture in the lives of local women, and through her eyes we are granted entrée into the intimacies of the birthing chamber with its attendant joys and tragedies, its revelatory moments about a marriage’s true status. The detailed description of medicinal plants, spiritual rites, and turn-of-the-century traditional practices and instruments grounds this novel and will appeal to historical fiction lovers.
Above all, A Decent Woman is the story of the evolving friendship between Doña Ana Belén and Serafina, a woman the midwife meets when she delivers Serafina’s first child at sixteen in the poor neighborhood of La Playa. A Decent Woman embodies the genre of women’s fiction in the most complete sense of the word exploring the lives of women – young and old, dark- and light-skinned, poor and rich.
Doña Ana finds her livelihood eroded by male-dominated, hospital-based birthing practices and edges toward poverty as Serafina’s marries into an elite family. Dramatic juxtapositions particularly in relation to class dynamics amplify the intensity of each woman’s position and drive the novel forward. A Decent Woman is a feminist commentary on turn of the century health care, Parker Sapia exposes and explores the process by which midwives were displaced by male doctors along with misogynistic and racist attitudes towards impoverished sex workers without being preachy or overbearing. This layered tale also hangs on deeply-seeded tensions between love, friendship, and family versus isolation, loneliness, and despair. Doña Ana, as a devout practitioner of Santeria, finds herself targeted by Catholic priests while she herself is able to seamlessly blend both religions in her spiritual life.
Parker Sapia’s prose is generally lucid and simple. She deviates from that style only in relation to her generous landscape descriptions which describe the tumult and unpredictability of the ocean during hurricane season in a manner reminiscent of the gothic tradition. There are moments when the story feels a bit rushed, and the reader would like to languish longer in the emerging plot points, scenes, and emotional life of the characters. But on the whole, this is an outstanding read and an important book about a little known corner of women’s history.