Pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba as seen through the eyes of a young refugee.
Like her protagonist, Nora, debut novelist Samartin left Cuba with her family after Castro’s revolution and settled in Los Angeles. In occasionally overwrought language, she spins a gripping tale. Nora’s extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are first seen in their idyllic haute bourgeoisie milieu: chaperoned dances, sumptuous dinners, cocktails on sun-swept terraces, swims in limpid, azure waters. As revolution looms, Nora and her cousin, beautiful Alicia, are mostly preoccupied with boys, especially Tony, the gorgeous biracial nephew of Great Aunt Panchita’s maid, Lola. When Castro’s advent destroys their comfortable existence, the Garcia clan flees Cuba as soon as they can bribe their way out, leaving Tía Panchita and Alicia behind—she has married Tony, a staunch Communist, over family objections. In the book’s balky midsection, the emphasis shifts from turmoil in Cuba to Nora’s more conventional problems—adjustment to America, teenage angst and a growing attachment to an older teacher, Jeremy. Letters from Alicia filter through, recounting ever-escalating crises: After a utopian start on a sugar-cane collective, there’s the birth of Lucinda, who is blind; Tony is called to serve in the Angolan war; Lucinda’s hope for a cure is blighted by red tape; and Tony is imprisoned. As Nora’s life improves—she’s in graduate school and married to Jeremy—Alicia’s spins apart. She must trade sexual favors with a prison guard to ensure Tony’s safety. Later, she turns to prostitution at one of the glitzy hotels the government sponsors to distract tourists from Havana’s decay. Returning, Nora finds matters far worse than Alicia’s letters intimated: Alicia has HIV. Unless Nora contrives a rescue, Alicia will be taken to a colony where AIDS sufferers are warehoused until death, and Lucinda will go to a state orphanage. The shocking revelations that pile up at the close threaten to swamp the story, like the sharks that will eventually circle Nora’s escape boat.
Histrionics aside, an insider account with real teeth.