Fruit of the Drunken Tree (Contreras)

Fruit of the Drunken Tree 
Ingrid Rojas Contreras, 2018
Knopf Doubleday
320 pp.

A mesmerizing debut set in Colombia at the height Pablo Escobar's violent reign 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 Bogota. 

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 inextricably linked coming-of-age stories.

In lush prose, Rojas Contreras has written a powerful testament to the impossible choices women are often forced to make in the face of violence and the unexpected connections that can blossom out of desperation. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Bogota, Columbia
Education—M.F.A., Columbia College Chicago
Awards—Mary Tanenbaum Literary Award-Nonfiction
Currently—lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California

Ingrid Rojas Contreras was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Guernica, and Huffington Post, among others.

She has received fellowships and awards from The Missouri Review, Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, VONA, Hedgebrook, The Camargo Foundation, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures.

Contreras currently lives in San Francisco, where she blogs about books for NPR affiliate KQED and teaches fiction at the University of San Francisco. (Adapted from the publisher.)

Book Reviews
The use of raw potato to treat any ailment. Guard booths and gates. Buying barrels of water during blackouts. Leaving the television on to know exactly when the electricity comes back on. And the graphic news reports, the car bombs, the kidnappings, the ever-present fear in your gut that something terrible could happen to someone you love at any moment. 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…you don't need to have grown up in Bogot? to be taken in by Contreras's simple but memorable prose and absorbing story line.… [S]ensitive and thoughtful.
Julianne Pachico - New York Times Book Review

One of the most dazzling and devastating novels I’ve read in a long time.… An exquisitely intimate double portrait of two young women.… Unforgettable.… Readers of Fruit of the Drunken Tree will surely be transformed.
San Francisco Chronicle

Simultaneously propulsive and poetic, reminiscent of Isabel Allende.… Fruit of the Drunken Tree offers a wake-up call for many. An eye-opening story of survival in a place history books and crime sagas (see: "Narcos") would have us think we know better than we do.… Listen to this new author’s voice—she has something powerful to say.
Entertainment Weekly

Original, politically daring, and passionately written—Fruit of the Drunken Tree is the coming-of-age female empowerment story we need in 2018.

[F]ull of details about life in early 1990s Colombia during the last year of Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror.… This striking novel offers an atmospheric journey into the narrow choices for even a wealthy family as society crumbles around them.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) Rojas Contreras's…does an excellent job of articulating the complicated political situation and illustrating the heartbreaking day-to-day reality for children.… A fascinating, poetic read from an up-and-coming author. —Kate Gray, Boston P.L., MA
Library Journal

[I}ncomparable.… Contreras’ deeply personal connection to the setting lends every scene a vital authenticity, and a seemingly unlimited reservoir of striking details brings the action to life…. A riveting, powerful, and fascinating first novel.

The perils of day-to-day existence in late-20th-century Colombia …are glimpsed through the eyes of a child and her family's teenage maid…. A tragic history…, and the results are patchy: sometimes constrained by invention, sometimes piercing.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The Fruit of the Drunken Tree shifts between the perspectives of Chula and Petrona. How do the dual perspectives impact your reading of the novel? What would be lost without Chula’s perspective? Without Petrona’s?

2. During most of the novel, Chula narrates Fruit of the Drunken Tree as a child. How did the child narration effect your reading experience? Did you enjoy that perspective?

3. The author does a great job of showing the many sides to a story, and develops each character fully. With which character did you sympathize the most? The least?

4. When Chula is brought back to her mother after the kidnapping attempt, she doesn’t understand her mother’s anger and protests "but [Petrona] brought me back." Who do you side with? Do you think Petrona deserves forgiveness?

5. Did you understand Petrona’s final decision to stay with Gorrion? Were you surprised to learn that she married him? Why?

6. The symbol of the drunken tree figures heavily into the novel. How does Ingrid use this symbol? What is its significance?

7. There are many mentions of supernatural elements (witches, ghosts, tarot cards) in Fruit of the Drunken Tree. Why do you think the author included them? And what do they add to your reading experience?

8. What did you know about Colombia before reading this novel? Did the book change your perspective?

9. At the end of the novel, you find out that much of the story is based off of experiences from the author’s life. Did you know it was autofiction? If not, how did that knowledge add to your overall reading of the book?

10. Each character in the novel copes with trauma in a different way. How do their strategies compare to one another? How do you imagine you would react to a similar experience?

11. Did Chula’s experience immigrating to the US impact your understanding of refugees and immigrants? Do you feel that you have more empathy after reading it?

12. What do you envision happens to the characters after the book ends?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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