Fruit of the Drunken Tree: A Novel

by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Hardcover, 2018

Call number





Doubleday (2018), Edition: 1st Edition, 320 pages


"When women of color write history, we see the world as we have never seen it before. In Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Ingrid Rojas Contreras honors the lives of girls who witness war. Brava! I was swept up by this story." --SANDRA CISNEROS, author of The House on Mango Street A mesmerizing debut set against the backdrop of the devastating violence of 1990's Colombia about a sheltered young girl and a teenage maid who strike an unlikely friendship that threatens to undo them both Seven-year-old Chula and her older sister Cassandra enjoy carefree lives thanks to their gated community in Bogotá, but the threat of kidnappings, car bombs, and assassinations hover just outside the neighborhood walls, where the godlike drug lord Pablo Escobar continues to elude authorities and capture the attention of the nation. When their mother hires Petrona, a live-in-maid from the city's guerrilla-occupied slum, Chula makes it her mission to understand Petrona's mysterious ways. But Petrona's unusual behavior belies more than shyness. She is a young woman crumbling under the burden of providing for her family as the rip tide of first love pulls her in the opposite direction. As both girls' families scramble to maintain stability amidst the rapidly escalating conflict, Petrona and Chula find themselves entangled in a web of secrecy that will force them both to choose between sacrifice and betrayal. Inspired by the author's own life, and told through the alternating perspectives of the willful Chula and the achingly hopeful Petrona, Fruit of the Drunken Tree contrasts two very different, but inextricable coming-of-age stories. In lush prose, Rojas Contreras sheds light on the impossible choices women are often forced to make in the face of violence and the unexpected connections that can blossom out of desperation.… (more)

Media reviews

It’s vividly specific details like these that made me wince in recognition while reading Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s “Fruit of the Drunken Tree,” a beautifully rendered novel of an Escobar-era Colombian childhood. Although this debut novel is inspired by the author’s personal experiences (as noted in an afterword), you don’t need to have grown up in Bogotá to be taken in by Contreras’s simple but memorable prose and absorbing story line......Contreras’s depiction of growing up amid such constant violence provides some of the most arresting passages in the book. ...I’m writing this a few days after Colombia’s recent presidential election, and I can’t help wondering what novels about Colombia 25 years from now will have to say about this current period. I can only hope they’ll be as sensitive and thoughtful as this one.

Library's review

Engaging and memorable characters are the heart of this novel. It was good to look at the situation in Colombia from the viewpoint of ordinary people, including the poor and refugees from the violence, instead of the fixation on the mediated glamour of narcotraficantes, guerrillas, and paramilitary types. (Brian)

User reviews

LibraryThing member debkrenzer
I had a really hard time getting into this book. Actually, I never did get into this book. It was rather slow for me. It was about the day to day in Bogota and dealt with a well off household who hired poor girls to clean and the poor girls.

With it being day to day activities, it was written day to day. It was just really, really slow for me. I think had I not had such a long TBR pile and had I more time, I could have given this book a little more time. However, for me, there are too many good books out there to be bogged down by a slow one.

I was not crazy about the characters, it was kind of boring and was not holding my attention.

I absolutely LOVE the cover, however.

Thanks to Doubleday Books and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
One thought came to my mind when turning the last page. Could this really be based on a true story? There was so much evil between the pages of this heartbreaking novel. It was like there was a disease that was caused by the poverty and deprivation of one class vying with another one that had material wealth and an ostentatious lifestyle. The symptoms were greed, envy, and the desire for power on equal scales, each of which were obvious catalysts inspiring both the guerrilla warfare of Pablo Escobar and his drug cartels and the government's paramilitary forces that coexisted there, to cause the death and destruction, on a major scale, of innocent people and their property.
There were people who supported those in power and there were people who supported those who committed the acts of violence; they supported the kidnappings and torture and murder of those that disagreed with their beliefs and policies, and when death came to their neighbors, they turned their heads in disgust, depending on whose side they agreed with and whose they did not.
Was there ever a time that the madness could have been stopped? The rich did turn a blind eye to the plight of the very poor, offering them menial jobs, but no real road out of their circumstances. Yet, for evil to flourish, didn't the people have to acquiesce to its power? Didn’t some of the guilt for their plight lie with the victims, as heinous an idea as that seems? Did they need stronger leaders?
Why did the mothers seem so demanding, even selfish, and always prone to anger and violent behavior toward their children? Why were the men either portrayed as victims who were meek, weak or thugs who took the easy way out or were divorced from the plight of those around them? These were the thoughts that came to me, and. I was sad, but also disappointed with the choices the people made. The educated and the uneducated, alike, made foolish decisions, selfish and heartless decisions. They were all influenced by superstition and the supernatural. The resentment of the poor against the rich misguided them and the blindness of the rich to the difficult lives of the poor demonized them further and was a catalyst to the atmosphere of terror. In this story, told in the voices of Chula Santiago and Petrona Sanchez, we learn about the horrors that the author faced in her own life, although the story, regarding these characters and their experiences is fiction.
The Santiagos, Alma and Antonio and their two children, Chula, 7, and Cassandra, 9, lived in a comfortable, gated community in a house with several bedrooms, bathrooms and many modern conveniences. Antonio Santiago worked for a Colombian oil company and then for an American oil company. He moved up in position and provided well for his family. Alma did not have to work and could employ household help. The Sanchez family lived in a tin hut with children sharing beds, not only bedrooms, and no one earned a decent living wage. There were many children. There were few job opportunities for them. Several of the children were attracted to drugs and guerrilla warfare. They were poor and poorly educated. The children who made it were able to move away, but they then turned their backs on their community and offered little assistance to their family. The girls took care of the chores, getting the water, laundering clothes, cooking and doing whatever cleaning could be done. It was the job of the eldest to protect and provide for those younger.
Petrona Sanchez, at age 13, was ordered by her mother to go out and work. She obtained a job as a maid for the Santiagos. She and the youngest child, seven year old Chula Santiago, developed a relationship. Chula believed it was her sole responsibility to protect Petrona from danger because no one else would. Therefore, when she learned of Petrona’s sometimes questionable behavior, she did not tell anyone and swore her allegiance and silence to her. Petrona secured Chula’s trust by making veiled threats against the family. She even implied that Alma’s life might be in danger if Chula exposed Petrona and her boyfriend's actions. So Chula lied in order to keep Petrona’s underhanded behavior under wraps. Unfortunately, those lies became the catalysts that brought about very dangerous circumstances for all of the Santiagos. Chula was young and naïve, unable to fully understand that there might be unpleasant consequences as a result of her deceptions. The fighting and the terror all around her traumatized her and left their scars on her and everyone else involved.
Petrona’s boyfriend, Gorrion, convinced Petrona to allow him to kidnap the Santiago children for ransom. They were rich and could afford to pay it. What followed led to further brutality and fear for the family and Petrona. However, Alma and her girls, Chula and Cassandra, were able to obtain refugee status and were eventually granted asylum in America. Antonio had disappeared. They found out he had been kidnapped and his whereabouts were unknown. When Petrona changed her mind and intervened, aborting the attempt to kidnap Chula and Cassandra, she betrayed her boyfriend who captured her and had her drugged, beaten and raped, then left for dead. She had no one to help her, to grant her asylum, to find her a safe place to stay, but an old woman found her almost lifeless body and nursed her back to health. Still, her experiences had robbed her of her memory.
Gorrion found her and withheld his part in her injuries from her. He lied and told her they were married right before she disappeared. He told her that the child she carried was his. When her memory returned, she did not tell him that she knew the truth about what had happened to her. Many of the secrets kept created problems that might have been avoided, but instead, they exacerbated an already precarious situation. The scars of the revolutionary days of Pablo Escobar and the paramilitary were either visible or invisible on all involved, the rich and the poor. Still, I wondered, were they not all in some way complicit in the terror and the violence, the death and destruction, the hopelessness and despair, because of their own behavior, accepting the brutality so long as it wasn’t directed against them? However, reading this story will give the reader a clearer picture of the terror that the Columbians lived through and will help the reader understand the need that often arises for refugees to be granted asylum in America.
Was the reason for the planting of the poisonous Drunken Tree ultimately also the cause of many of the problems? Did it symbolize the class differences, the hate and the arrogance of a people, one pitted against the other, the haves and the have nots who were on trains that would never meet, the hopelessness that could never be lifted?
The atmosphere was also poisonous!
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
One can’t love a sad story like this, but one can become enmeshed in the story of how life can change dramatically in Colombia as the drug lords laid siege. Telling the two intertwined stories of an upper middle class girl and a girl born in the slums, the girls relationships change as the story unfolds.
LibraryThing member Kristymk18
One of my best friends is Colombian and I've heard for years about his trips to Colombia to visit family so I was excited to get an ARC of Fruit of the Drunken Tree.

It's a quiet novel that goes back and forth between Chula, a young girl living in Colombia during the reign of Pablo Escobar, and Petrona, the teenage maid who's working to help out her family. Even though both protagonists are young, this doesn't read as middle grade or YA, but rather as an adult novel that uses the lens of children to view the world.

This is Ingrid Rojas Conteras' debut novel and I look forward to seeing what else she writes.
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LibraryThing member debbiesbooknook
My Takeaway
"War always seemed distant from Bogotá, like niebla descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles. The way it approached us was like a fog as well, without us realizing, until it sat embroiling everything around us." Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Fruit of the Drunken Tree

Fruit of the Drunken Tree is an exceptional, majestic and captivating book. Oh, and the cover is stunning and simply out of this world! This is Contreras's debut novel, but I pray to the book spirits it is not her last. She weaves such a prolific story with intricate characters and gut-wrenching situations, which will remain with me for a long time. The novel takes place in Colombia during the violent drug lord years of the notorious Pablo Escobar. The story is narrated by seven-year-old Chula and the family's live-in maid, thirteen-year-old Petrona. Chula is a precocious girl who is extremely observant, curious, and wise beyond her years. On the other hand, Petrona is the sole breadwinner of her family, lives in poverty and has an incredibly difficult life. Despite their differences, Chula and Petrona develop an unusual, yet genuine friendship. I find myself recommending Fruit of the Drunken Tree because it is such a beautifully written novel (and based on Contreras's own life). Incredibly as amazing as this book is I would not have picked it up as quickly as I did if it weren't for my wonderful bookish Instagram friends, Lupita Reads and Spines & Vines. It is also the September book for the #ReadAcrossInstagram in collaboration with Lit on H St, Salt Water Reads, and #Words.Between.Worlds. If you would like to join the fun, there's still time! Grab a copy, participate and be a part of the discussion!
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LibraryThing member JanaRose1
Chula belongs to a privileged Colombian family who lives in a gated community. Petrona, their maid, comes from a poor family who struggles to feed themselves. Both are threatened by the violence and turmoil from gorillas, drug lords and corrupt political officials.

I thought this book was a bit off. Chula was so young and had such a childish voice. It was hard to relate to her because of how young she was. Petrona, who was a more interesting and dynamic character, was lost in the dispassionate short passages that were supposed to tell her story. Overall, the book felt detached and surreal. Although I was interested to read about Columbia and the dichotomy of their lives, the book fell short.… (more)
LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Digital audiobook performed by Marisol Ramirez, Almarie Guerra and Ingrid Rojas Contreras.

Based on the author’s own life experiences, this novel tells the story of a family “safely” ensconced within their gated community in Bogotá, Columbia in the early to mid 1990s. Chula, the 7-year-old narrator, and her older sister Cassandra enjoy a relatively carefree life within the community. But just outside the walls of their compound, the infamous, and seemingly all powerful, drug lord Pablo Escobar continues his reign of terror with kidnappings, car bombs and assassinations.

I loved that Contreras used two different young women (girls, really) to narrate this story. The viewpoint alternates between Chula and Petrona, who is the family’s teen-aged maid. Chula has a naivete and innocence of youth, and of her upbringing in a relatively safe, secure and stable (if isolated) environment. Petrona, on the other hand, has suffered the indignities and deprivations of the poor and uneducated. The oldest of nine children who live in a slum, she has taken on the burden of being the breadwinner for her family at the tender age of thirteen. The way these two narrators see what is happening in their country is colored by their experiences – each of them having a limited viewpoint for different reasons. And those limitations make them vulnerable to manipulation, and result in some dangerous situations.

I was completely immersed and engaged in their story from beginning to end. Having both viewpoints I recognized the danger long before either of the narrators, but was still caught off guard a few times as twists and turns occurred in the plot. For the time I spent with these characters I had a glimpse of the uncertainty the citizens of Columbia must have felt.

It’s a strong debut for Contreras and I look forward to reading her future works.

The audiobook was masterfully performed by Marisol Ramirez, Almarie Guerra and Ingrid Rojas Contreras. Brava, ladies.
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LibraryThing member styraciflua
This is a fictionalized account of a childhood in Venezuela and immigration to the U.S. The central character is five when the book opens. We learn, as she learns, what it is like to live in a nation with a huge gap between the wealthy and the desperately poor, and a powerful and lawless narco-gang. Her relationship with the young girl they have hired as a servant brings to mind the film "Roma." but is a much more fraught relationship. I found it a good read and helpful in understanding the dangers and fear that lead people living in authoritarian and violent nations to seek asylum in the U.S.… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
The narrative of Fruit of the Drunken Tree shifts between the perspectives of two young girls. Chula is a seven year old child of an upper middle class family who lives in a gated community in Bogota. While Petrona is a teenager who works as the family's housekeeper and lives in a hovel in a poor neighborhood. The use of dual perspectives creates a more complete picture of the environment in Columbia in the Escobar era where bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations were commonplace.

During most of the novel, Chula narrates her story as a child. This provides a freshness and naivete in the face of sinister news; it helps to build the suspense as their environment gradually becomes more and more dangerous. Throughout the story the author creates believable characters that this reader could empathize with as events turned worse for the family. It did not help them that there was class prejudice in their neighborhood based on the presence of "Indian blood" in Chula's mother.

Supernatural elements (witches, ghosts, tarot cards) permeate the narrative in Fruit of the Drunken Tree. These provide a more comprehensive experience of the atmosphere where Chula and her family lived. Several incidents in the story raise danger and combine to lead Chula, her sister, and Mother to emigrate to the United States. This experience, while difficult for the family, is accomplished with great strength as they stay together as a unit even while reacting in their own individual ways.

The young girl, Petrona, says early in the story that "I want to be normal for once, why can't I?"(p 140). This is something that all the characters in this story face, for there is no "normal" for them during a time of turmoil. One of the most emotional moments was when Chula realized she would never see her home again as she left with her family. Anyone who has had to leave their childhood home, never to return, has at least some idea of how this feels. Contreras' novel is an exceptional story of growing up in a time of turmoil and ultimately creating a new life in a world you never dreamed of.
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