The adventures of several Cuban immigrant women in America are affectionately depicted in this colorful debut from a Cuban-born journalist and former TV scriptwriter.
Its central protagonist is Graciela Altamira, beautiful young mother of two sons, who is separated from her schoolteacher husband Ernesto and working in a doll factory in Union City, N.J. Graciela tells her own story, juxtaposed with the narrations of her fellow townswomen (from the nondescript village of Palmagria) and coworkers, hot-tempered Imperio and her kinder, gentler counterpart, Caridad. Their drab lives are enriched by their shared obsession with the Spanish-language telenovelas whose feverish romanticism cunningly exploits viewers’ hopeful anticipation of the moment in each series “when the first kiss between our favorite new couple would take place.” But television dramas are no match for Graciela’s passionate history, as the unlikely second spouse of a passive widower, the lover of Palmagria’s predominant young stud (Pepe) and—in a twist none of the women has foreseen—the chosen beloved of their very definitely un-Latino shop foreman Barry O’Reilly, meaning (they realize with horror) that “Graciela was going to be our supervisor.” A lot of this is quite entertaining, but the gradually assembled picture of the Castro revolution’s devastating effect on close-knit Cuban families is overdone, and Santiago finds himself still scrambling to layer in expository information more than halfway through. Nice characterizations throughout help, however, as do a handful of capably paced and detailed sequences (in the best of them, an extended flashback, Imperio takes her ailing husband Mario to a santería priest for a most unconventional cure). Santiago’s novel pales in comparison with its presumable model, Mario Vargas Llosa’s comic masterpiece Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter—but then what doesn’t?
No great novel, but could maybe make a nifty telenovela.