Cristina García’s debut novel examines the fraying threads connecting a Cuban family as some of the members remain in Cuba in the years after the Revolution while others emigrate.
Set mostly in the ’70s, the del Pino family suffers from a restlessness that both tears apart and unites its members. To tell the story, García skips through time and switches perspective, sometimes several times per chapter, mostly between the female members of the family. (Although there are men in the book, the women are the storytellers.) Suzanne Toren voices the anguish and disillusionment of the family’s matriarch, Celia. When Celia cannot will away her children’s demons or husband’s death, she throws her remaining vitality into supporting the Cuban revolution.
The narrator differentiates the voices of three generations of Cuban women by donning different degrees of Cuban accent. Celia has the thickest accent, followed by her daughters, Felicia, who never leaves Cuba, and Lourdes, who emigrates to the US immediately after the Revolution. Although Lourdes obsesses over living the American Dream by becoming a successful entrepreneur and by volunteering for her local neighborhood watch, Toren gives her a thicker Cuban accent than Felicia, never allowing Lourdes’ accent to fade, even as the years pass and her bakery business expands.
Lourdes’ rebellious daughter, Pilar, is born in Cuba but comes to the States with her parents when she is still a toddler. Toren gives Pilar just a touch of Cuban accent by way of Brooklyn, and Pilar serves as the listener’s guide someone who is wholly familiar with Cuban culture without being a part of it.
Toren’s narration is sensitive to the fact that Fidel Castro always referred to simply as El Líder serves as not just a background detail for a historical novel, but as central character, in the sense that he catalyzes the plot. As such, look out for the moments when El Líder appears: these moments comprise the most intense, compelling parts of the narrator’s performance. Maggie Frank