1992 - Dreaming in Cuban
I have an insatiable appetite for magical realism. It's one of the few genres that keeps me up way too late, using a flimsy book light to see the pages that I devour while trying to stay silent and still so as not to disturb my husband. The strangest part is that I never expect it. I don't seek out magical realism, but when it finds me it grabs hold and we can't tear apart until the story is done, generally leaving as many questions as answers, and casting a strange glow on every occurrence for the next several days.
Dreaming in Cuban is the debut novel by Cristina Garcia. It is a familial unfolding across decades and across a deceptively narrow sea, between Cuba and the United States. Celia's children, Lourdes, Felicia, and Javier, have dispersed from their home on Cuba's north shore. When Celia's husband, Jorge, dies, he visits his wife, their children, and grandchildren, whispering of Cuba and secrets long held. The story is sweeping, yet specific; the characters are painfully real and altogether enchanting.
Garcia is an exceptional writer. I flagged a dozen passages that I could use in this post, but I kept coming back to this one because it shows the vibrancy of this novel in ways no review could every do.
In a few of the sketches, I paint Abuela Celia just the way she wants--dancing flamenco with whirling red skirts and castanets and a tight satin bodice. Abuela likes these paintings best, and even ventures a few suggestions. "Can't you make my hair a little darker, Pilar? My waist a little more slender? Por Dios, I look like an old woman!"
Mostly, though, I paint her in blue. Until I returned to Cuba, I never realized how many blues exist. The aquamarines near the shoreline, the azures of deeper waters, the eggshell blues beneath my grandmother's eyes, the fragile indigos tracking her hands. There's a blue, too, in the curves of the palms, and the edges of the words we speak, a blue tinge to the sand and the seashells and the plump gulls on the beach. The mole by Abuela's mouth is also blue, a vanishing blue. (page 233)
Celia's love letters are interspersed throughout the story. She beautifully elicits the strength of love beyond lust.
I remember when I applied for a job at El Encanto, the director wanted me to be a model, to walk up and down the aisles in gowns and hats draped with chiffon. The salesmen bought me perfume and invited me to lunch. But they couldn't talk to me about why families of guajiros slept in the city's parks under flashing Coca-Cola signs. Those men only murmured sweet nonsense to me, trying in vain to flatter me.
You were different, mi amor. You expected much more of me. That is why I loved you. (page 206)
I'm excited to be able to recommend three of my all-time favorite books, all in the magical realism genre, and all set in Latin America.
- Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Eva Luna is the portrait of an independent, sensual, storyteller in an unnamed South American country in the mid-20th century. The characters are rich and mystical. Oscar Wao is the story of a Dominican in New York City, struggling with his identity as a "ghetto nerd." The tumultuous political history of the Dominican Republic is woven throughout the story, adding depth and contrast to Oscar's own struggles. Be warned: this book will make you question what is actually wondrous in life. Finally, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the epic saga of a family where nearly everyone has the same name, the matriarch is alive the entire duration of the one-hundred-year timeline, and the town where they live is as much a living, breathing character as the rest. The writing is stunning.
Keep turning the page (especially late at night),