Book Review – Never to Forget by Carlos Alvarado

A tender and poignant portrait of an adventuresome Costa Rican emigrant and her battle with dementia, in which the tales of her life’s daring, love, and family are repeated to her as testament to her enduring matriarchal lionization.

In this well-paced, poignant biography, author and retired Emergency Room physician Dr. Carlos Alvarado shares equally the tragedies and triumphs of Costa Rican-native Bertelina “Bertha” Solis’s rich life. Raised in the farming communities of Costa Rica, Bertelina’s story begins in the days of WWII, in a country that has little to do with international combat, yet still is affected by global change. Like most teenagers, Bertelina’s life feels lacking to herself, as she must balance manual labor and family obligations against blossoming love and the search for personal identity outside what is ascribed to her by a traditional community. She does, at first, what is expected of a young woman of her station, but then becomes involved in the Costa Rican Civil War—the bloodiest event in the century for that nation—seeking to become a solder and spy. Afterward, her adventures continue, though not overshadowed by military violence and regimental coups, yet still filled with hardship, treachery, sacrifice, and atonement.

…And love.

Love is the overarching theme of this book, being the search for it, the effect of it, and the loss of it. Bertelina finds the love she thought she always wanted in a husband, but then learns how corruptible that affection may be. After divorce and immigration to the United States, she must reinvent herself as a single, working mother, while trying to care for her five young children. Love, truly, for her children is what keeps her going, and love reciprocated from them is how she is ultimately redeemed.

The framing structure of this story is well crafted, providing a back-and-forth perspective of Bertelina’s life—her wild younger days interwoven against depiction of her as an elderly patient, suffering the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s dementia. And thus is the grand question for us all: How can someone once filled with seemingly limitless vitality and strength to overcome obstacles be reduced over time to such helpless convalescence, filled with angst and paranoia, wondering eternally at her own worth? The answer, of course, returns to the theme of love, which is reflected by her adult children who now must care for her, understand her, and keep her memory alive.

NEVER TO FORGET is certainly an emotional ride, filled with laughter, thrills, and adventure. It felt a bit forced at times, presuming to know Bertelina’s inner thoughts at every decision and event she faced, but it is undeniably a compelling memoir. So too is it relatable—replace the nation, era, circumstances, and it remains the story of the “everyman”—a search for self and the hope for a better life. As someone with first-hand experience caring for an elder with dementia, I found Alvarado’s depiction of Bertelina (“Bertha” in America) in her final years as a sufferer to be tragically precise, filled with the telltale details of spiraling mental disease, including a martyr-like attitude of not wanting to be a burden while helpless to care for oneself, and to the vicious cycle of blame, confusion, and loneliness.

The pacing of the story was skillful. The tone is contrasted between scenes of bright hope (such as childhood friendships and salvation) against bleak darkness (including gunplay and attempted rape). Alvarado’s writing itself could occasionally feel a bit clunky, but overall was easy to follow, colorful, and paired well to the voice of the subject. Bertelina’s story is a virtuosic portrait of an immigrant woman who overcame social and cultural expectations, while raising a thriving family, only to be felled by the mundane catastrophe of age. Her story, clearly, is one never to forget.

An immersive and true adventure balancing a young girl full of love and zest against her final matriarchal days as one ailing yet treasured.

An affectionate journey through a Costa Rican emigrant’s life, following political revolution, social justice, and family love.

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