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By Cristina Garcia
New York: Aldred A. Knopf, Inc, 1997
ISBN # 0-679-45090-4
300 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2013

In a few pages which open the novel, but not the action, the reader gets a note written by Ignacio Aquero in 1948. He has just murdered his wife, and he tells the circumstances and then tells the reader that he then went home and began to tell his lies.

What follows is a fascinating and gripping family saga. There are four generations of Agueros and related families involved, but the center is on the two half-sisters, Constancia and Reina. We follow them from childhood upward, while memories and histories tell us a good deal about their father and grandfather as well. We also meet the children of Constancia and Reina, but they are relatively minor characters.

The novel is set in Cuba/New York/Miami. The action covers more than 100 years and is brilliantly told. Author Christina Garcia builds curiosity with hints, bits of information and with information withheld. There is always a bit of a sense in the reader that he or she is a bit off kilter with the story and not exactly sure where it is going.

The novel is also essentially Cuban in culture, history, location, action and outlook. The reader learns a great deal of what it was like to live in Castro’s Cuba, what it was like to be a Cuban immigrant trying to make it in the U.S. And certainly Constancia does make it, first via her husband’s wealth, and later on all on her own. Reina remains in Cuba until the 1990s, a sort of amazon of a woman, yet extremely beautiful, sexy and wild, a woman who lives life on her own terms and trucks no limits on her freedom.

The novel hops around in time, with tales from as early as 1900 in the grandparents’ lives, and significant time spent on the 1940s-60s and Ignacio (the father) and his career in biology and zoology.

The focus however is on the half-sisters and their lives. Both are fascinating people, Constancia rather tradition in things like dress and values, but extremely bold in business, competent and driven. Reina is a very strong SELF. She lives her life her way and the world around her, gossip and others may simply be damned. She always does things her way.

The reader is treated to an inside look at Cuba in the Castro days, at least up to the early 1990s, and Garcia’s treatment is neither a blistering attack, not any sort of utopian celebration. She approaches life from the point of ordinary people living fairly ordinary lives and the reader gets a quite balanced picture. Reina is much more comfortable with life in Cuba, Constancia very happy that she left early and embraced an upper-class American life form.

One aspect that runs through the novel in both Cuba and the U.S. is the place of Santeria within Cuban culture. While Constancia has “Americanized” most things in her life, she is still deeply rooted in Santeria and its environs. She’s especially addicted to a U.S. radio program which deals with miracles occurring daily within the world. Reina is much less involved with the religion, but it culturally affects her as well. When she does come to the U.S. and lives with Constancia, she soon becomes a fan of the miracles as well.

I especially enjoyed the latter fourth of the novel when the two half-sisters are united in Miami. Reina moves in with Constancia and while they love each other very much, each is a bit astonished at the life form of the other. It makes for great reading.

This is the third of Garcia’s novels I’ve read and I’m already looking forward toward another.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett