Chao’s double-faceted second novel (after Monkey King, 1997) combines the ethnic flavor of sweaty downtown New York dance clubs with a Miami-based plot against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
The result is a high-energy, sometimes dizzying ride, served with blaring mambo music, plenty of rough-edged sex and characters who, though naggingly familiar, somehow manage to avoid cliché. Catalina Midori, as shy as her Cuban-Japanese roots suggest, is running from a loveless marriage and a past haunted by the childhood memory of finding her father’s body when he committed suicide in Castro’s Cuba 25 years earlier. Now an English teacher living alone in New York, she finds salvation when she discovers the world of Latin dance and the underground clubs where mambo dance kings and queens unwind nightly to pulsating conga beats. Among the rulers of this netherworld are Tuerto, the overbearing machismo dance instructor who often takes more than he gives from his students, and Wendy Cardoza, the hot-blooded ex-junkie turned mambo queen, who fights to remain Tuerto’s number one dance-and-sex partner. Catalina is soon Wendy’s number one friend—and rival, for Catalina is torn between her unquenchable thirst for Tuerto’s passion and her childhood love for her cousin Guillermo, who’s been drawn into a dangerous anti-Castro plot by his wealthy Miami in-laws. When Guillermo is ordered to sneak arms into Cuba for an assassination attempt on Castro timed to coincide with a papal visit, Catalina and Wendy become unknowing accomplices. Chao does a good job of drawing us into this up-tempo world of Latin dance, though her prose isn’t evocative enough to keep the repetitious spins and flourishes from often blending into a blur. And the melodrama that forms the narrative’s final third feels tacked on and less than convincing, despite the alluring doses of Cuban street flavor that go with it.
Still, an entertaining, sometimes intoxicating read. Like the passionate dancers she portrays, Chao writes with heart and soul. Somehow, that feels like enough.