Cristina García’s intricate novel, The Agüero Sisters, examines four generations of a Cuban family and the secrets they have not shared. The most immediate question concerns the mysterious death of naturalist Blanca Agüero on an expedition in the Zapata Swamp, but as the novel progresses, larger questions arise: What is love? What is the nature of truth, and does knowledge change it? As in real life, not all of these questions are answered, but the important bonds of family are revealed through the healing influence of history, memory, and truth.
Like its acclaimed predecessor Dreaming in Cuban (1992), this book is set largely in the United States and Cuba during the years of communist rule under Fidel Castro. García, a former reporter and Miami bureau chief for Time magazine, once again employs a fluid structure teeming with flashbacks. The present-action chapters take place in the early 1990’s and are explored through Blanca’s daughters Constancia and Reina, the sisters of the title, and occasionally through a minor character. These chapters alternate with a first-person narrative written forty years earlier by Blanca’s husband, Ignacio.
The vibrant lead characters generate much of the power of the novel. Perhaps the most intriguing is Reina, a statuesque electrician who is nicknamed “Compañera Amazona” (Amazon comrade) by her male admirers. Reina travels through Cuba conducting seminars in her field and is frequently called on to install or repair all kinds of electrical equipment. She has always been comfortable with tools and machines; the presence of her toolbox intensifies her every pleasure. Men are dazzled not only by her strength and skill but also by her body, for she is a dark, magnificent woman without false modesty or shame. Dissembling is beyond her; she openly maintains a long-term relationship with her married lover.
Constancia, her older sister, is petite, pale like her mother, stylish, and self-disciplined. She climbs nine flights of stairs daily to keep her legs shapely and still speaks the Cuban Spanish of the late 1950’s, in use when she and her second husband, Heberto Cruz, fled as Castro seized power. After escaping Cuba, Constancia remained in genteel stasis in New York, where Heberto owned a tobacco shop, and where she was awarded a powder-pink Cadillac as “the top [cosmetics] salesperson in North America.” Following Heberto’s decision to retire at the end of 1990, they moved to Miami, where he prepares to “liberate” Cuba with a band of Cuban exiles. Constancia begins to manufacture her own line of cosmetics, Cuerpo de Cuba (Body of Cuba), in expensive blue glass bottles adorned with a cameo of her mother’s face.
The sisters share a sensitive digestion, ill-fated first love affairs (with capitalist Gonzalo Cruz, Constancia’s first husband, and the Cuban revolutionary who fathered Reina’s daughter), and willful, alienated children. Yet they are quite different in most other respects. After Reina joins Constancia in Miami, she mocks her sister’s enthusiasm for cosmetics: “Since when did cellulite ever deter passion?” She is also uncomfortable with the commercial use of their mother’s portrait on the blue bottles. Only six years old at her mother’s death, Reina now actively seeks further information about her parents. Constancia, on the other hand, tries to block her memories, but ironically her cosmetics have the ability to trigger nostalgia in her customers and herself, touching “the pink roots of their sadness.”
The two women unwittingly mirror their parents, as Ignacio’s narrative and their own accounts reveal. Ignacio was a true scientist: objective, methodical, concerning himself with things of the mind. He was also distant and cautious, like Constancia. The only child of a literary father and musical mother, he fell in love with the natural world of birds and other living creatures. On his thirteenth birthday his parents gave him a copy of Birds of the World and arranged for a solo expedition to the Isle of Pines. At sixteen he enrolled in the University of Havana on a scholarship and eventually became a professor of...
(The entire section is 1705 words.)