Skip to main content

Song of the Water Saints


Song of the Water Saints

Nelly Rosario's evocative novel, SONG OF THE WATER SAINTS, follows
the women of one Dominican family as they wander exterior and
interior landscapes in search of adventure, self-worth, and
happiness. Each woman rebels against and conforms to the ideas of
womanhood set by the women before her.

Graciela is a spirited, sexual and independent young woman. Married
and widowed at an early age, she is left alone with her daughter.
Not cut out for the habits and responsibilities of motherhood,
Graciela refuses to be confined in the role and instead sets off on
a disastrous adventure that will alter the course of her life after
she returns to her small, close-knit community. Graciela is
uneducated but imaginative, unloving yet still likable, and author
Rosario powerfully portrays her desire for freedom. Graciela's tale
is beautiful, at times frightening and always compelling. The
finest achievements in the novel are in the telling of Graciela's

Graciela's daughter, Mercedes, is in many ways the opposite of her
carefree and negligent mother. Responsible, sharp-minded and
religious from an early age, Mercedes is beautiful and talented
with numbers, drawing the attention of many male suitors. Fiercely
independent (in this she is like Graciela), she marries a man
viewed as less than suitable. But unlike Graciela, Mercedes is
successful in her relationship.

Mercedes finds herself, later in life, raising her granddaughter in
New York, far from the familiarity of the Dominican Republic. Leila
identifies more with American culture than Dominican and struggles
to reconcile the various aspects of her identity, all the while
involved in a reckless relationship with an older, married man.
Leila, like her great-grandmother before her, leaves the safety of
home and finds herself confronted with a dangerous situation. And
Leila, like Graciela, uses sex as a method of testing her emotional
limits as well as the limits of those who care about her. The
reader can only hope that Leila does not return home with the same
burden that Graciela did.

Sensual and emotionally honest, the novel moves from the lush
terrain of the Dominican Republic to the bustle of New York City.
Yet despite this move, the women are confronted with the same
issues. Although the Dominican Republic is important to Rosario's
story, the themes of self-respect, freedom, responsibility, and
family transcend the island's beach borders. Graciela, Mercedes,
and Leila must each define themselves and learn to assert their
needs or suffer if unable to do so. And each must deal with what
she has inherited from the women before her.

While these themes are familiar in literature, they have not often
been expressed in such poetic and brutally frank terms. Graciela is
a unique character who Rosario places in challenging situations.
Rosario is able to handle Graciela's often brutal experiences with
grace and understanding. Despite her circumstances, Graciela's
dreams and imaginings never are ignored or belittled. Leila and
Mercedes are, on the other hand, not completely original
characters, and Graciela distracts from what little impact they are
capable of; after reading Graciela's story, Mercedes' and Leila's
seem flat and less interesting. Still, the novel is recommendable
on the strength of Graciela and the childhood of Mercedes.

Graciela, while not a heroine in the traditional sense, is
captivating nonetheless. A promising debut novel, SONG OF THE WATER
SAINTS is engulfing and atmospheric and simply enjoyable.

Reviewed by Sarah Egelman on January 23, 2011

Song of the Water Saints
by Nelly Rosario

  • Publication Date: February 26, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0375420878
  • ISBN-13: 9780375420870