A compassionate portrait of a stalwart, aging, ailing Cuban woman unwilling to relinquish her identity.
In the hallucinatory opening chapters, elderly Unica wanders away from the Miami nursing home where she’s been placed by her overbearing daughter-in-law Miriam, and resides with her husband Modesto. “Rescued” from a nearby beach where she danced, naked and distracted, Unica broods over newspaper stories about young Elián Gonzalez, like herself a refugee between two countries, and writes letters to her grandson Patricio in which memories of her earlier years emerge, collide, and gradually clarify. We learn of the “madness” of her mother Marcia, abandoned by her handsome lover then wed to an unimaginative doctor she doesn’t love; young lawyer Modesto Duarte’s courtship of teenaged Unica, while he fought for oppressed workers in the years preceding the Castro Revolution; and of their son Cándido, a charismatic boy who built a bomb shelter, became a decidedly unconventional “healer,” then became a bisexual husband and father who perished on a raft fleeing Cuba years after his loved ones had safely preceded him. Mestre-Reed (The Lazarus Rumba, 1999) skillfully employs dreams and fantasies to create a rich narrative fabric, but stumbles late in the book, when Unica’s stoical acceptance of her “second death” from cancer (the first having been her uprooting from her homeland) is juxtaposed with her gay grandson’s loving (though, as she knows, impermanent) relationship with a young male nurse. The fluidity of sexual attraction and identity is indeed an integral theme; but the story is, properly, Unica’s, and the young lovers who in effect receive her blessing are simply far less interesting than she.
Overall, inferior to Mestre-Reed’s dazzling debut, but very much worth reading nevertheless.