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book review: two books by cristina garcia

CatbooksMy last book review was of Marie Arana’s Cellophane, one of a number of books I have read that could be considered Latin American fiction or literature. It is a genre I enjoy, and when I ran across Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia, I was especially eager to read it, as it was about three generations of women in a Cuban family. Cuba is near and dear to me, and I find little by American writers — even those who were born in Cuba, as Garcia was — that really capture the heart-moving feeling of the island.

Garcia does that, and more. Much of the impact of experiencing Cuba is in the smallest details. It is difficult for me to describe — but that’s what we have authors like Cristina Garcia for. I’ve seldom read a writer who has such mastery of detail, exemplified in some of these lyrical and evocative passages:

Dreamingcuban_2“The lines in his face look as if each were put there by a distinct calamity rather than a slow accumulation of sorrow. … He keeps his wedding ring in a blue velvet box with tight springs. I remember how he used to slip the ring on and off his finger easily, as if it were greased, and the things he did when it was off didn’t count.”

Descriptions that with only a few simple words speak volumes: “We made love slowly, with discovery.” A “faded mantilla” is “soft as a moth.”

I thought Garcia made each female character come to life, although each was very different, and the story shifted from one perspective to another frequently. I think some readers might find this comes across as a little disjointed, but for me it highlighted Garcia’s skill in speaking in a variety of voices. It added greatly to the way she explored the depths of each woman’s thoughts and motivations. I was drawn in, even beguiled, by the craftsmanship of this novel. I think I would have been enchanted reading Garcia no matter what the subject matter.

So I was really looking forward to moving on to her The Aguero Sisters, a novel also based on Cuban sisters and their different worlds. Their parents were Cuban zoologists, and there were passages regarding Cuban wildlife and wild places where I have conducted my own field work.

I was a bit disappointed in Sisters. It was, more or less, the same sort of story as Dreaming in Cuban, with different characters. I found her writing just as sweet and agile, and the story was actually quite intriguing.  The characters just did not engage me quite as much. More of it took place outside of Cuba, although I will say she captured the feel of Miami, for example, equally well.

I recommend both these books, and will read more of Cristina Garcia’s work in the future (her new novel, A Handbook to Luck just came out). Her writing is a joy to read, pure and simple. A bonus for me is how it gently rouses memories of my times in Cuba, a place so vastly removed from my everyday life that even the most powerful experiences quickly seem unreal upon my return home.  As one of Garcia’s women remarks,

“Cuba is a peculiar exile, I think, an island-colony. We can reach it by a thirty-minute charter flight from Miami, yet never reach it at all.”

Cristina Garcia, at least, brings it a little closer.

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