One of the sisters of the title, Constancia is petite, feminine, and proper, and these traits stand in stark contrast to her sister Reina, whose Amazonian figure suits her larger-than-life personality. When the novel opens, Constancia is fifty-one-years-old and living in New York with her husband, Heberto Cruz. She's a successful businesswoman who sells makeup out of a deep conviction of its importance. She's ‘‘motivated not by commissions, only by the satisfaction of staving off women's little everyday deaths.'' The way Constancia sees herself is shaped by and reflected in her external appearance. Rejecting ''the modern ethos of comfort before style,'' she wears high-heeled shoes and color-coordinated outfits to perform the routine tasks of her work day. Constancia sees her own appearance as a selling tool. She's ‘‘partial to Adolfo suits, which set off her petite figure, and she completes every ensemble with a short strand of pearls. Her foreign accent and precise manner intimidate clients into buying whatever she suggests.’’ When the couple retire to Key Biscayne, Florida, Constancia opens her own business—Cuerpo de Cuba—and creates a line of natural body and face creams. She's a brilliant marketer and soon becomes a very successful entrepreneur. One morning, Constancia wakes to find her face has been replaced by that of her long-dead mother, Blanca Mestre Agüero, who abandoned her as a young child. In many ways, Constancia has resolutely put her family history behind her. Yet of all the characters she's the most susceptible to superstition and magic. Constancia's favorite radio show is La Hora de Los Milagros, or ‘‘the miracle hour,’’ and she ‘‘knows in her heart that miracles arrive every day from the succulent edge of disaster, defying nature, impossible to resist.’’
Ignacio is the patriarch of the Agüero family, but his character isn't well understood by either Reina or Constancia, who don't know that he has committed a shocking act. He shot and killed Blanca Mestre Agüero, his wife and the mother of both sisters, in the Zapata Swamp many years before the main action of the novel occurs. After this terrible deed, he leaves the swamp and ‘‘began to tell his lies.’’ Two years later, he commits suicide. As the novel progresses, Ignacio is seen as an increasingly sympathetic character, thanks to his first-person diary account of his life. Ignacio writes his own story, and in doing so, he provides a partial history of Cuba. Born in 1904, two years after Cuba got its independence, Ignacio becomes a renowned naturalist who publishes many books, the most famous of which is entitled Cuba: Flora and Fauna. In his youth, Ignacio read to the workers in his father's cigar factory and he pursued the beautiful chemist Blanca Mestre, who later became his wife. It was the explicit goal of his career to catalog ‘‘every one of Cuba's nearly extinct birds.’’ His diary staves off his own extinction by letting his daughters learn the truth about him long after his death. This novel is so concerned with what things mean that the family name Agüero is translated as "omen" or "augury."
Reina Agüero Reina, one of the two sisters in the title of the novel, is tall (5'11’’), voluptuous, romantic, and irresistible to men. Reina's daughter, Dulce, describes her mother as a woman who "puts her faith in electricity and sex.’’ In many ways, Reina is the opposite of her practical and petite older sister. When the novel opens, Reina is forty-eight and is living in Havana, Cuba, in the apartment where she was raised. She's suffering from a bad case of...
(This entire section contains 1153 words.)
insomnia and in her sleeplessness she endlessly wrestles with the family's past. Reina is a skilled, traveling electrician—a profession that suits her. It allows her to meet and make love to men from all over the country. ‘‘The most daring of her colleagues call her Compañera Amazona, a moniker she secretly relishes.’’ Both Constancia and Reina undergo physical transformations. Constancia wakes up to find she has taken her mother's face, and Reina is hit by lightning when she's working as an electrician in El Cobre, a town in eastern Cuba. Reina's skin is so badly burned that it's stitched back together with donations from friends, family members, and lovers. ‘‘Most of Reina's nutmeg color is gone, replaced by a confusion of shades and textures. A few patches of her skin are so pink and elastic, so perfectly hairless, they look like a newborn pig's.’’ Reina is emotional—she cherishes the memory of her mother's having breast-fed her until she was five, and she lives among the papers and debris of Ignacio's past—but she has trouble connecting to Constancia. In the years after their mother's death, Reina ‘‘wishes her sister could have given her something vital then, something to ease her grief. But all that was essential collapsed between them in those years, collapsed but did not die.’’
Pepín Beltrán Reina's lover of twenty-four years, Beltrán is married, wears orthopedic shoes, and is an official in the Ministry of Agriculture. When Reina is hit by lightning, he is one of the people who contributes some of his own skin for her skin graft. He is loyal to the ideals of the revolution and remains in Cuba after Reina departs for Miami.
Gonzalo Cruz Gonzalo Cruz was Constancia's first husband and her love for him stays with her, despite her marriage to his brother, Heberto. Gonzalo and Constancia were only married for four months; Gonzalo left her when he found out that she was pregnant and he never made any effort to meet their son, Silvestre. Gonzalo seems legendary. He marries six times, is known for being an unforgettable lover, and has a war wound—a shortened leg—from the Bay of Pigs. Gonzalo takes pride in his own outrageousness and in his injury: ‘‘Gonzalo could have fixed his leg years ago, but he prefers it damaged, the pretext it gives him to boast of his valor.’’ Throughout most of the novel, Gonzalo is in the hospital, sick and dying.
Heberto Cruz Constancia's husband, Heberto, is a stable, successful businessperson, a man with a ‘‘steady mercantile drive’’ who owns a tobacco shop on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and then undergoes a dramatic personality change in retirement. After urging Constancia to move to Key Biscayne, Florida, Heberto is convinced by his older brother, Gonzalo, to become a counter-revolutionary. He becomes involved in a plot to overthrow the Cuban government. ‘‘Years ago, Heberto had wanted to join his father and exiled brothers in the Bay of Pigs invasion, longed to commandeer one of the Cruzes' secretly donated ships. But Constancia threatened to leave him and move to Spain.’’ Heberto departs for the Florida Everglades and is killed in action.
Isabel Cruz The artist in the family, Constancia's daughter, Isabel, has received some family traits that link her to her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother. When the novel opens, Isabel is a potter, living in Oahu and pregnant with her first child. Isabel's work is free-form—"odd shards of clay and other materials combined to suggest something recycled, something tampered with or incomplete.’’ Isabel is described as having a ‘‘quiet defiance.’’ After she gives birth to her son, Raku, her former boyfriend Austin sends a money order for two hundred dollars, but Isabel tears up the check and Constancia is frightened by her ‘‘daughter's resoluteness.’’
Silvestre Cruz When most of the action of the novel takes place, Silvestre is thirty-three, a homosexual, and working at a library clipping articles for a news magazine. Silvestre is Constancia's son by her first husband, Gonzalo Cruz. When Silvestre was a child, Constancia sent him to an orphanage in Colorado because she was frightened by rumors that Cuban children would be rounded up and sent to boarding school in the Ukraine. At the orphanage, he contracted a 107-degree fever that left him permanently deaf. "Silvestre desperately attempted to conquer the damage, to discipline his other senses to make up for the unyielding silence. He strengthened his eyesight, his senses of smell and touch and taste, to fatiguing degrees.’’
Dulce Fuerte Reina's daughter represents the younger generation in Cuba. She's the daughter of a well-known revolutionary, José Luís Fuerte, and she worked as a volleyball coach at José Martí High School before she became a prostitute. For Dulce, her personal history is a burden and she is very bitter. She says, ‘‘I spent practically my whole childhood in boarding schools, wearing navy-blue uniforms, picking lettuce or lemons or yams and reciting useless facts.’’ She used to joke with Che Guevara's son about their ‘‘respective revolutionary burdens.’’ In order to leave Cuba, she marries an older man and flees to Madrid.
Blanca Mestre Agüero Murdered in the opening pages of the novel, Blanca is a compelling but enigmatic character, one who's seen almost exclusively through the memories of her daughters and her husband. She's important because it is her face that Constancia later assumes in one of the novel's strange touches, and it is the memory of her nurturing (she breast-fed Reina until her younger daughter was five-years-old) that haunts Reina throughout her life. Slight in stature, Blanca is described as being a beauty, "delicately boned as certain birds.’’ Like her husband, Blanca was a famous naturalist. She's also characterized by her fierce independence. Blanca abandons her five-month-old daughter, Constancia, and when she returns to her husband and child, she is pregnant with another man's child. As befits a character who haunts the living, Blanca seems spooky and slightly unreal. She has strange eating habits, drinking milk all day and eating her sole meal of steak, fried eggs over rice, and a ripe mango each day at four a.m. This is how Ignacio describes his first impressions of his future wife: "Her gifts had nothing to do with intelligence, which she displayed in impressive abundance, but were born of qualities much less tangible. Instinct. Intuition. An uncanny sense for the aberrational.''