A young American finds her missing father when she travels to Havana—and learns how to survive as a high-priced prostitute.
Alysia Briggs is 13 when her dying mother tells her that her real father is José Antonio, and that some day she must find him in Cuba. Alysia, raised a diplomat’s daughter and born in Havana, concludes that the handsome translator mentioned in her mother’s journals is her biological father. Ten years later, she jeopardizes her career in the Foreign Service and, on a student visa, goes to Cuba, where in her first week the $25,000 she brought is stolen. Because of restrictions on her visa, she can neither work nor leave the island for a year. Destitute, she takes the advice of her new friend Camila and enters the life of the jinetera, whereupon begins the story’s duality: on the one hand lies the pallid melodrama of finding the long-lost father; on the other, the revelatory portrait of contemporary Cuba’s demimonde society. A jinetera, or jockey, lures wealthy tourists into “affairs,” weeklong associations that provide gifts of jewelry or clothes and sometimes cash. Unlike the common prostitute paid by the hour or deed, the jinetera has long-term goals: monthly checks, return island visits, sometimes even marriage. Camila, a heart surgeon by day, has many “boyfriends”—a Syrian official, a Spanish oil magnate—and a house full of luxuries her paltry salary could never buy. Far from shameful, the pragmatic Cuban views the jinetera as clever and resourceful, and she is sometimes lucky enough to support her whole family. Alysia uses her new profession (which surprisingly causes little distress) to buy information about her father, but that plot line seems tacked on, an afterthought to the far more intriguing subject of contemporary Cuba, where the best educated are simultaneously among the poorest on earth.
An uneven debut that might have been better as nonfiction: bogged down by a forced sentimentality, raised up by fine reportage.