Garcia's Exploration of how Personal and National Histories Shape the Characters' Destinies in The Agüero Sisters

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1620

For Constancia and Reina Agüero, two sisters struggling to come to terms with the histories of their countries and their families, the truth is slippery, something that's been fractured by lies. History is in the eye of the teller, and facts are far from stable. Like other Cuban Americans, Garcia...

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For Constancia and Reina Agüero, two sisters struggling to come to terms with the histories of their countries and their families, the truth is slippery, something that's been fractured by lies. History is in the eye of the teller, and facts are far from stable. Like other Cuban Americans, Garcia herself is used to radically different interpretations of the same event. In the Los Angeles Times, she said, ''All of my mother's family stayed in Cuba by choice. My mother was the only one who came. All of my father's family decided to come to the United States. My mother joined my father's camp. So we were politically polarized. My mother's family was very pro-Castro, pro-revolution—many of them still are. My father's side is virulently anti-Castro, anti-Communist. I grew up in the middle of this black-and-white extreme situation.’’ And in an interview in Newsweek, Garcia enlarged upon this point: ''in my family, and I see it in other Cuban families as well, there's this fierce struggle over family myth and history. People have political agendas and axes to grind. Everyone's version is competing with everybody else's, and who can tell where the truth really is?’’

One aspect of Cuban history is, of course, politics. Garcia points out that for many, politics is an excuse for posturing. When Reina arrives in Miami, she knows that revolutionary rhetoric will no longer fly, and she usually remembers to play her role perfectly. When she forgets, trouble breaks out: Here, political talk is a prelude to a slapstick brawl and is tinged with farce. While the Winn-Dixie customers overreact, thirty-one-year-old Dulce is so worn out by politics that her opinion of the revolution is comically understated: ''At minimum, it can make a person permanently irritable.’’

What makes politics comical is the human dimension, the warring personalities involved. When Constancia's mild-mannered husband, Heberto Cruz, joins his brother Gonzalo's underground exile group, La Brigada Caimán, for him, the goal of the enterprise is personal, ‘‘to break free from his leashed life.'' Not only is he absolutely clear-sighted on this point, but so is Constancia. She sees that what attracts Heberto to ‘‘a quasi-historical calling’’ is the grandeur of it, the opportunities for fulfilling his own inner possibilities. '‘‘Men always confuse patriotism with self-love!' Constancia hisses between bites of fried plantains. It's a perverse form of idealism. Why else all the primping and medals, all the oiled and spit-shined leathers? In her opinion, war should be strictly personal, like philosophy or sexual preference.'' Politics is akin to sexual attraction in this novel. Heberto tacks the Cuban flag to his and Constancia's bedroom wall, and Gonzalo woos Heberto to his cause much as he romantically won Constancia in their youth. Constancia ''knows first-hand how persuasive a salesman her ex-husband can be. Thirty-five years ago, Gonzalo came courting her, ferocious with dreams. He cut open a vein in his leg to impress her, brought her a wreath of dead bees ... Constancia considered him a hazard, like languor or sunstroke ...’’

One's relationship to one's country is similar to the relationships in a family. Dulce makes this explicit when she compares Cuba to ''an evil stepmother, abusive and unrewarding of effort. More, more, and more for more nothing.'' However, one's role in history can also be a way of escaping one's family responsibilities. When Dulce thinks of her father, a well-known revolutionary, his exalted reputation makes his personal shortcomings that much harder to bear.

Reina knows that Dulcita resents her father, the veneration he still receives as a Hero of the Revolution. As her daughter grew older, his picture stared back at her from her history books, his slogans were extolled while she endlessly harvested lemons or yams. All Dulcita's life, it was José Luís Fuerte this, José Luís Fuerte that, until it made her ill.

If he was so great, why didn't he ever see me?

Dulcita was six-years-old when she asked Reina this.

One counterbalance to political pain is humor. Garcia mocks revolutionary fervor: ‘‘In recent years, small propeller planes buzzed over Havana like persistent insects, dropping leaflets urging a mass uprising. If these pilots were truly interested in building solidarity with their hermanos in Cuba (who, incidentally, were already gagging on propaganda), they would have dropped more useful items: sewing kits or instant soup, bars of soap, even decent novels, for that matter. The leaflets, Reina remembers, were barely suitable for toilet paper. They left tenacious exclamation points on her buttocks, which, despite vigorous scrubbing, took many days to fade.’’ The exclamation points on Reina's flesh give an absurd twist to what otherwise would be a serious message. Throughout, a sense of practicality deflates the romanticism of the revolutionary cause. If the revolutionaries are play-acting, driven by their own personal needs to generate propaganda, then the proper response is a reality check, someone asking for instant soup instead of yet another pamphlet.

Subjectivity can be a balm, too. It's Constancia's unique talent to invent products that elicit nostalgia in a generic enough way so that each user will take from the product what she needs. ‘‘Already, Constancia has received dozens of letters from women who confess that they feel more cubana after using her products, that they recall long-forgotten details of their childhoods in Sagua la Grande, Remedios, Media Luna, or Santa Cruz del Sur ... Politics may have betrayed Constancia's customers, geography overlooked them, but Cuerpo de Cuba products still manage to touch the pink roots of their sadness.’’ Here, the same object is rich in meaning for many different women, but what the creams and lotions mean depends upon the individual and her own unique situation and set of memories.

Subjectivity becomes harmful when the same object is interpreted so differently that it drives a wedge between family members or lovers. Ignacio Agüero's lies about his wife's death rob his daughters of their ability to perceive reality and communicate about it meaningfully. Constancia and Reina are so divided that little common ground remains. ‘‘Reina remembers how, after her mother's death, everyone's vision splintered. There was a bird that hovered over Mami's burial plot at the Colón Cemetery. Her father pronounced it a common crow. Constancia, fresh from the farm in Camagüey, insisted it was electric blue. Reina wanted to believe her sister, but she saw a bird on fire, tiny and bathed in violent light. It broke the air around them, invited an early dusk. Reina recalls how the emptiness seemed to surround them then, a sad bewilderment that has never lifted.’’ This is a poetic evocation of how small differences can be magnified until nothing is perceived the same way. Although Reina wants to believe her sister's version of events, she can't. She literally sees a different reality, a bird on fire where her sister sees electric blue. Those differences persist, keeping them apart.

Humor isn't Garcia's only solution to the various rifts Cuban Americans experience. For the greater differences—such as the family feud between the sisters—much more than humor is required. Here, Garcia turns to magic and religion. ‘‘When logic fails, when reason betrays, there is only the tenuous solace of magic, of ritual and lamentation.’’ The book's final scene, in which the two sisters fight with one another and Reina nearly drowns before they reach some sort of unspoken resolution, is propelled by Constancia's visit to the santero. In a 1997 Chicago Tribune article, Ruth Behar wrote: ‘‘In the midst of such confusion and moral crisis, Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that survived slavery and the revolution, offers perhaps the only source of spiritual solace for Cubans here and there, or so at least suggests Garcia, whose novel is anchored in the clairvoyance of this enduring faith.’’

In Garcia's world, magic and religion are manifestations of the deep connections people share, those connections that reach well beyond language. The members of the Agüero family, no matter where they live, no matter who's alive and who's dead, share a physical bond that keeps recurring in mysterious ways. Blanca Agüero is left with a mark on her heel while swimming on her honeymoon; Constancia marks Isabel on the foot while trying to revive her from heatstroke; and Isabel's son, Raku, is born with a red birthmark on his foot. Nina King, writing in the Washington Post Book World, commented: ''Though they have been separated for 30 years, the two sisters' experiences sometimes involve a mysterious parallelism.’’ The example she gives is Constancia's having woken up with her mother's face and Reina's having been struck by lightning and given skin grafts from family and friends. In Garcia's world, people are an amalgamation of their loved ones. Even emotional memories are handed down from generation to generation. Ignacio recalls that his mother's out-of-wedlock daughter was drowned in September, and even though that sad event occurred before his birth, each year, in September, he feels sad.

In the end, history is an illusion, or, in Reina's words, ‘‘It's all a mock history.’’ Magic and religion help point us in the right direction, but what seems to matter most is simple things, such as the shrimp-and-watercress omelet that the sisters share in a boat halfway between Florida and Cuba. The history that counts is that one that's lived on a daily basis. ‘‘There's no substitute,’’ wrote Garcia, ‘‘for the quiet culture of a life together, the endless days commemorating nothing, amassing history bit by bit.’’

Source: Elizabeth Judd, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.
Elizabeth Judd is a freelance writer and book reviewer with an M.F.A. in English from the University of Michigan and a B.A. from Yale.

Satire, Metaphor, and a Variety of Character Narrations

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

Cristina Garcia's second novel opens in the mystical Zapata Swamp on the southern coast of Cuba, a place long imbued with mystery and magic in Cuban folklore and Afro-Cuban ritual. It is there that Ignacio Aguero, a renowned naturalist, murders the mysterious Blanca, his wife and research associate. Two years later, he commits suicide, leaving no explanatory note. The novel thus becomes a whydunit, as in the case of Garcia Marquez's Cronica de una muerte anunciada. The reader approaches the story from multiple points of view, attempting to elucidate the reasons for the murder/suicide and its effect on the surviving Aguero daughters and their own progeny.

The novel is masterfully structured with a mosaic of narrations from the Aguero sisters, their daughters Dulce and Isabel, Ignacio Aguero, and a third-person narrator who localizes each sister alternately. The diminutive Constancia, unwanted by her mother and virtually abandoned by the latter after the birth of her half-sister Reina, relies on appearance (she is a cosmetologist), social connections, and the conventional trappings of success: a sizable income, a well-placed condo, a boat, a (pink!) Cadillac. Reina, resembling her mother's mulatto lover, basks in her mother's love and solicitous attention (she is breastfed until she is five), and grows up self-assured, androgynous, and libidinous—perhaps excessively so. The forty-eight-year-old Reina's animal magnetism and endless conquests seem a bit hyperbolic even by the standards of magic realism, to which Garcia subscribes in a subdued manner. Constancia embodies the traditional values of Cuban middle-class exiles, whereas Reina, a master electrician by training and profession and a solid supporter of the revolution until the job-related accident that results in her defection to Miami, represents the blue-collar outlook of the supposedly classless society in which she grew up and the survival skills of the last wave of exiles.

Garcia meticulously researches every aspect of her novel—from ornithology to cosmetology by way of electrical engineering and antique-car repair—and conveys her findings with an admirable command of language and a gift for metaphor. Her careful reconstructions of habitats long destroyed and traditions long abandoned inspire Cubans to remember and non-Cubans to discover; especially noteworthy is her evocation of the lec tores, cigar-factory employees whose function it was to entertain cigar rollers with readings from the classics, hoping to improve the quality of their product by improving the minds of its makers. The descriptions of the Cuban landscape around the beginning of this century provided by the naturalist Aguero are particularly lyrical and almost mystical, even though we suspect that some of the species described are figments of the author's imagination. At one point she places a leatherback turtle—whose usual habitat excludes the Caribbean—in the waters around the (former) Isle of Pines to the south of Cuba. Aguero spots the gigantic turtle as she digs her nest on the black volcanic sands of the isle and lays her eggs at midnight. He then watches in dread as predatory seagulls and stray dogs threaten the nest: ‘‘What choice did I have? I sat on the leatherback's nest all that day and all the next night, guarding her eggs from predators, guarding the eggs for her.’’ Immediately following an episode in which Ignacio's first love goes sour after his beloved asks him to exterminate a colony of bats that had infested her attic, the landscape and its creatures become a metaphor for the subjectivity of the character and an affirmation of the eternal laws of nature over the vicissitudes of human life and love. Such juxtapositions abound throughout the novel.

Satire is an important element in The Aguero Sisters—specifically about the exile community in Miami, with the usual planned invasions of Cuba and the sacralization of everything pre-Castro. Most amusing is the mushrooming of Constancia's line of cosmetics, ‘‘Cuerpo de Cuba,’’ which caters to aging Cuban baby-boomers by offering a special emollient for every sagging part of their anatomy (''Cuello de Cuba,'' ' 'Rodillas de Cuba,'' ''Muslos de Cuba’’). This is a humorous, well-written, most enjoyable work from the author of Dreaming in Cuban.

Source: Ana Maria Hernandez, ‘‘The Aguero Sisters,’’ (Book review) in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1998, p. 134.

The Familial Crises of Two Cuban Misses

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

Cuba, the outpost of a decayed ideal, nurtures a distinctive temperament. The giddy hedonism of an island which surely senses it cannot barricade itself much longer against the modern world mingles with disappointment of a shattered dream. This novel by Cuban emigree Cristina Garcia captures both these moods, distilling them into the twinned themes of sex and death.

The Aguero Sisters is the interleaving narrative of two daughters, Reina and Constancia. Reina, the younger, works as an electrician in Cuba. Statuesque and sensual, with thighs strengthened by shinning up telegraph poles, her body is an open invitation to pleasure. "If she could grasp nothing in its entirety then why not celebrate what she could grasp with her own senses.’’ She luxuriates in a power to reduce men to a state of helplessness. But when she is struck by lightning (the improbable becomes the norm in this novel) she begins to think it would be better if she were dead. Her grafted skin, mismatched and scratchy, smells to her of blood and sour milk. It ruins her familiar pleasures—‘‘her rapture and her hot black scent.’’ Until suddenly, at precisely 5:13 one morning, she suddenly knows one thing for certain: that she can no longer stay in Cuba. She illicitly escapes to join her sister Constancia in Miami.

Constancia, her elder sister, is petite with lacquered nails, carnelian lips and a firm belief that comfort should never be placed before style. Owner of a successful company manufacturing beauty products, her chief concern is to stave off women's "little everyday deaths." "If politics have betrayed the Cubans and geography overlooked them, her Cuerpo de Cuba products still manage to touch the pink roots of their sadness.’’

Though the two sisters seem so different, they are rooted in a Cuban past which draws them together. The voices of their parents—two biologists whose life of shared passion ended in sudden and violent death—provides a context for their daughters' voices. Together they shape a mesmerising—if bewildering—portrait of a family whose lives reflect the mood and history of Cuba.

This is a loose, drifting novel. Curiously, and often irritatingly, nebulous, the plot hinges on memories and emotions, magic and impossible turns of fate. To try to pin it down is to lose it. ‘‘You don't know how much of what you see, mi hija, you never see at all,’’ Reina's mother says. But always a stringent sense of reality twists through the dreams. History forms a harsh bedrock to this tale.

Source: Rachel Campbell-Johnston, "The Familial Crises of Two Cuban Misses,’’ in The Times, August 21, 1997, p. 34.

World of Portents

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107

In a certain way, extinction and augury are intertwined. The lineaments of the future can be divined by what the present refuses to support—an idea that is at the heart of The Aguero Sisters, Cristina Garcia's exhilarating meditation on Cubans and Cuba in the early 1990s.

As she did five years ago in her acclaimed first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, Ms. Garcia uses a divided family—some of the members remained in Cuba after the revolution, others made lives in America—as a way to talk about larger issues like patriotism, exile and the psychological costs of cultural fragmentation. However, there's an important difference between the two books. Dreaming in Cuban was set in the 1970s, when Fidel Castro's island still shimmered as a fierce and outsized symbol of all that was at stake in the cold war, and when the ruptures between those who stayed and those who left were still raw. Since then, the world has been vastly reconfigured. Now Castro is an old man, flogging a tired experiment. A skeptical new generation of Cubans and Cuban-Americans has come of age, and their parents—who lived through the revolution as children or young adults—are a disappearing species.

The Aguero sisters—their family name means "omen" or "augury"—belong to that species and are the focus of Ms. Garcia's exuberant attention. (It should be said right off that she is a very funny writer, one who uses her wit not to trivialize her characters but to encourage greater access to the conditions of their lives.)

Reina Aguero, when we first meet her, is a 48-year-old master electrician who lives in one room of a Havana apartment that once belonged to her parents and now houses seven other families. She is regal, competent and enthusiastically promiscuous, though her grand passion is a married bureaucrat with orthopedic shoes who has been her lover for 24 years. Her parents were naturalists who catalogued Cuban flora and fauna on the verge of extinction, and Reina lives rather contentedly among the remains of their work—stuffed bats, old field notes—until December of 1990, when a literal bolt of lightning prompts her to take a closer look at her life.

Her half-sister, Constancia, 51, has lived in America for nearly 30 years and is a paragon of capitalist enterprise. For many years, her husband, Heberto, owned a Manhattan tobacco store that sold the world's finest hand-rolled cigars, including illegal Cuban imports. Constancia herself is a genius at selling cosmetics, her motivation the sheer ‘‘satisfaction of staving off women's little everyday deaths.’’ The couple move to Miami, where Constancia sets up her own cosmetics line, Cuerpo de Cuba, and Heberto becomes involved in the heady enterprise of anti-revolutionary politics. Off he goes with a submachine gun to crash around in the Everglades with La Brigada Caiman, a bunch of old crocodiles who still think they're going to liberate Cuba. In his waning years, he has finally discovered the sharp thrill, ‘‘the promising grandeur of a quasi-historical calling.''

But Miami's exile community has become aged and brittle, an invalid with a fever. Even Constancia finds the air ‘‘thickly charged with expiring dreams.’’ And in that respect it's not so different from Cuba itself. Seen through the distinctly unrosy gaze of Dulce Fuerte, Reina's aimless 32-year-old daughter, Cuba in the 1990s is beset by a virulent combination of deprivation and boredom; it is a place where "the future is frozen'' and everything from sex to a santeria initiation is sold for tourist dollars. Dulce wonders idly what her revolutionary father would think of her today. ‘‘I used to be friends with Che Guevara's son in high school,’’ she says. ‘‘We used to joke about our respective revolutionary burdens. Last I heard, he was a heavy-metal musician, pierced everywhere and trying to leave the country.’’

Ms. Garcia is a strikingly deft and supple writer, both in her sensibilities and her language. She has a talent for the oblique that allows her to write what amounts to a family saga by focusing not on the strict beat that constitutes conventional plot development but on seemingly offhand memories and exchanges. The large events in the book—a book—a lightning strike, a patricide, a guerrilla attack on Cuba—occur in the wings, so to speak. They are not what Ms. Garcia's characters choose to tell us much about. The important stories occur in the interstices between these dramatic events.

In a slight misstep at the beginning of the novel, however, Ms. Garcia seems to suggest otherwise. The prologue describes an apparent murder: the mother of the Aguero sisters is shot by her husband, Ignacio, while the two naturalists are on a collecting trip in 1948. Ignacio's motive is deeply unclear, so the reader is encouraged at the outset to expect the working out of that mystery during the course of the novel. Why did he do it? And furthermore, why was each of the daughters given a different version of her mother's death? Why was each version a lie?

Ignacio's voice is present in the form of nine dispatches that survived his death. But only in the very last one does he talk about the shooting of his wife. There is no gradual illumination of that shocking incident, as there would be in a conventional mystery. Instead, what Ignacio chooses to address is the Cuba of his childhood and the creatures that lived in abundance then, including men like his father, whose job was to read to hushed factory workers while they rolled cigars by hand. He remembers his growing obsession with birds and the day his parents gave him the voluminous, magnificently illustrated Birds of the World. He describes the day he saw an eight-foot leatherback turtle drag herself onto a beach and lay her eggs, and the day he and his future wife, Blanca, stalked a mauve frog a quarter-inch long. With exactness and insight, he offers a record of his own existence: what he yearned for, what he noticed, what disappeared as he watched. The mysterious shooting soon takes its place among the many large mysteries of a single human existence.

All credit to Ms. Garcia, Ignacio's creator. The novelist's geomancy might consist, as much as anything, in the ability to illuminate what is crucial while seeming not to. By letting Ignacio speak to us in his naturalist's voice about many things that don't appear to pertain to the story, she eloquently highlights the novel's major themes: evolution, exile, extinction—and the last days of some very rare birds.

Source: Deidre McNamer, "World of Portents,’’ in The New York Times Book Review, June 15, 1997, sec. 7, p. 38, col. 2.

Review of The Agüero Sisters

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1427

Cristina Garcia's second novel, The Aguero Sisters, is a magisterial melodrama. Its plot wends through fraternal rivalries, pregnant daughters at odds with their mothers, unexplained murders, illegitimate children seeking to unravel their obscure origins—a family feud of epic proportion, traversing generations. One could easily confuse it with the latest prime-time telenovela on Univision, save for its lack of orchestral music and commercial interruption. Then, too, there is Garcia's astonishing literary style and dazzling attention to the telling detail, so alien to the world of soap operas. But her universe is ruled by primal emotions just the same, bordering on the ersatz.

At the heart of The Aguero Sisters is a Cuban lineage that spans the twentieth century and globetrots from Europe to the United States and back to the Caribbean basin. Ignacio Aguero, the family patriarch, is a renowned biologist. The novel opens as he kills his estranged wife, Blanca, while on a trip collecting fauna in the Zapata Swamp, on the banks of the Rio Hanabana. Pretending it was either a suicide or an accident, he carries her seventeen miles to the nearest village and, as related by the novel's too-lucid omniscient narrator (whose sections are interleaved with the characters' own narrations, not always well differentiated), he begins to tell his lies.

To illuminate the spectra of emotions thrown off by such an event, Garcia resorts to a narrative marked by counterpoint: In a Faulknerian approach (think of As I Lay Dying), she shifts scenes and subplots from this character to the next, from one viewpoint to another—from Constancia, the oldest Aguero sister, to her second husband, Heberto Cruz, a counter-revolutionary plotting another Bay of Pigs-style invasion of Cuba; from Reina's, Constancia's younger sister, to Reina's estranged daughter, Dulce Fuerte, and Constancia's first husband, Gonzalo, himself Heberto's brother ... and so on. As the various storylines unfold, each crashes against and redeems the others. This allows Garcia, in a fashion reminiscent of Fernando Ortiz's Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, to play a fascinating game of light and shadow, using one character to explain another and vice versa. A quote from early on:

Constancia pulls her husband to the dance floor. He is diminutive, like her, and she is dressed in white, like him. Together they look like a first communion date. Heberto is a good dancer, but often reluctant. Constancia is not, but excessively enthusiastic. She lurches too far to the right on a turn, but Heberto reels her in with a practiced air. Then he steadies her with a palm to the small of her back and leads her across the room.

The chorus of voices in this novel echo off a single sounding board, though: Ignacio Aguero. His reflective journal, in fact, functions as a palimpsest of sorts: The family secret—the murder—lies hidden within it, and to bring the truth to light, characters variously hide it and unearth it. This, of course, is a technique as old as the novel itself, but in the baroque world of Hispanic America it has become the artifice of first resort, probably because of the collective urge to return, time and again, to the wound that lies at the origin of everything: the shock of birth. Borges's masterpieces are all palimpsests, and One Hundred Years of Solitude is cast as a modern rendering of an ancient Gypsy scroll.

Not that in Cristina Garcia's hands this feels artificial. So what if it is derivative, a reader might ask—how much in art and literature isn't? Furthermore, isn't it in the nature of melodrama to deploy stock characters in archetypal situations? Sure, and Garcia brilliantly captures the cultural temperament of the Cuban diaspora. Always in search of something new, Constancia opens Cuerpo de Cuba, a beauty factory in Miami, and becomes a millionaire. As the novel progresses, she leaves the United States for Cuba, where her father's diary lies buried. Her sister Reina has migrated in the opposite direction. Fed up with Cuban socialism, she moves to the United States and becomes Constancia's confidante. Itinerancy, indeed, is the only constant: New Yorkers move to Florida, Cubans to Spain and the United States, Miamians to Cuba—a never-ending Gulf Stream whose flow symbolizes the real cycle of personal revolution.

Yet it is unfortunate that, with only a slight difference in approach, Garcia already gave her readers this material. The bulk of The Aguero Sisters takes place in 1991, as a group of Cuban counter-revolutionaries plan to overthrow Havana, unfolding in the same time frame and fashion, give or take a few years, as her debut novel, Dreaming in Cuban. The first book was also about—what else?—sibling rivalries and counter-revolutionaries and the crossroads of passion and politics. The Aguero Sisters reads, then, like a hand-me-down: Sisters swap partners, santeros unite the spiritual and the earthly, and Cuba is portrayed not as one nation but two: Fidel's and everyone else's.

Both novels are populated with a similar cast of characters and rotate around the search for clues to family identity. And as the genealogy in each is unscrambled, truth becomes more tangled. ‘‘It's all a mock history,'' Reina whispers at one point in The Aguero Sisters, and a bit later Constancia concludes, "Knowledge is a kind of mirage''—a statement [that] could pointedly apply to her precursors, the protagonists of Dreaming in Cuban.

Don't get me wrong: Garcia is an immensely talented writer whose work, like that of Jessica Hagedorn Sherman Alexie and David Foster Wallace, is renewing American fiction. Dreaming in Cuban was original and endearing when it was published in 1992, and while some accused Garcia of misrepresenting the Afro-Cuban tradition, I embraced the book for addressing admirably what Jose Marti once called las dos Cubas, both from within and from without. Melodrama it was, sure, but it had much more to it than laughter and Kleenex. Five years later, Garcia does write with more assurance, and her themes bear a certain Jewish flavor— memory and endurance, tradition and modernity. Not accidentally are Cubans sometimes called the Jews of the Caribbean.

Still, my feelings about The Aguero Sisters are ambivalent. Garcia has written, in many ways, the same book twice. Not word by word, like a Pierre Menard redrafting Don Quixote in the style of French symbolism. But she has become her own imitator, however deftly. The Aguero Sisters is indeed a wonderful book, but not a wonderful second book. It treads the same ground as its predecessor without taking new risks, without expanding into new horizons. Its prose is stupendous, its characters well rounded. But it is also predictable, simply because Garcia has prepared us for the same structure and plot—so much so that the excellence of Dreaming in Cuban seems retrospectively diminished by its author showing us the props and strings of its melodramatic structure. Not that I would rank her alongside Corin Tellado, the father of all Spanish-speaking melodramatists: Garcia's imagination is a treasure box of possibilities. So I feel disappointed that she has not dared to explore new structures and techniques, to reinvent herself as an artist. This puts me in mind of a memorable drama teacher I once had, whose motto was, ‘‘Don't give your audience only what it wants! Teach it to want more.’’

Melodrama has the habit of infiltrating serious literature everywhere, of course. One need only invoke Rosario Ferre's The House on the Lagoon, Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and Yo!, Denise Chavez's Face of an Angel and Ana Castillo's So Far From God to see the extent to which this is true, especially among Latinas. The reason, perhaps, is the emphasis Hispanic culture places on emotions and the signal influence soap operas have played in it since the fifties. Garcia's is a universe in which passion reigns and everyone is vulnerable and peevish and a bit insincere. Garcia surely isn't the sole explorer of the telenovela qua literary form—though she is one of the most gifted. Should we expect to be surprised in a writer's second act, or is being impressed enough?

In the end, The Aguero Sisters is indeed impressive, a book about revenge and love and hatred but especially about courage, in all its forms: courage to antagonize a regime, courage to be reconciled with one's own past, courage to find the truth. As Ignacio Aguero, the family patriarch, tells his daughters, "The quest for truth is far more glorious than the quest for power.’’

Source: Ilan Stavans, "The Aguero Sisters,’’ (Book review) in The Nation, Vol. 264, No. 19, May 19, 1997, p. 32.

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