The Aguero Sistersby Cristina García
When Cristina García's first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was published in 1992, The New York Times called the author "a magical new writer...completely original." The book was nominated for a National Book Award, and reviewers everywhere praised it for the richness of its prose, the vivid drama of the narrative, and the dazzling illumination it brought to bear on the intricacies of family life in general and the Cuban American family in particular. Now, with The Agüero Sisters, García gives us her widely anticipated new novel. Large, vibrant, resonant with image and emotion, it tells a mesmerizing story about the power of family myth to mask, transform, and, finally, reveal the truth.
It is the story of Reina and Constancia Agüero, Cuban sisters who have been estranged for thirty years. Reina, forty-eight years old, living in Cuba in the early 1990s, was once a devoted daughter of la revolución; Constancia, an eager to assimilate naturalized American, smuggled herself off the island in 1962. Reina is tall, darkly beautiful, unmarried, and magnetically sexual, a master electrician who is known as Compañera Amazona among her countless male suitors, and who basks in the admiration she receives in her trade and in her bed. Constancia is petite, perfectly put together, pale skinned, an inspirationally successful yet modest cosmetics saleswoman, long resigned to her passionless marriage. Reina believes in only what she can grasp with her five senses; Constancia believes in miracles that "arrive every day from the succulent edge of disaster." Reina lives surrounded by their father's belongings, the tangible remains of her childhood; Constancia has inherited only a startling resemblance to their mother--the mysterious Blanca--which she wears like an unwanted mask.
The sisters' stories are braided with the voice from the past of their father, Ignacio, a renowned naturalist whose chronicling of Cuba's dying species mirrored his own sad inability to prevent familial tragedy. It is in the memories of their parents--dead many years but still powerfully present--that the sisters' lives have remained inextricably bound. Tireless scientists, Ignacio and Blanca understood the perfect truth of the language of nature, but never learned to speak it in their own tongue. What they left their daughters--the picture of a dark and uncertain history sifted with half-truths and pure lies--is the burden and the gift the two women struggle with as they move unknowingly toward reunion. And during that movement, as their stories unfurl and intertwine with those of their children, their lovers and husbands, their parents, we see the expression and effect of the passions, humor, and desires that both define their differences and shape their fierce attachment to each other and to their discordant past.
The Agüero Sisters is clear confirmation of Cristina García's standing in the front ranks of new American fiction.
From the Hardcover edition.
Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Constancia sheds her life in Cuba to move to the U.S., where her husband, Heberto, makes a good living as a cigar salesman in New York, always reserving the finest contraband for his best customers. The couple raise two children, then retire to a Florida thick with fellow expatriates. Constancia is suffocated by the Key Biscayne Cubanas, shunning "their habit of fierce nostalgia, their trafficking in the past like exaggerating peddlers."
Reina lives in Cuba, where she attains renown as a gifted electrician (and lover), elastic in her morality but inflexibly loyal to her mother's and stepfather's memories. For years, Reina lives in a section of her late stepfather's apartment, surrounding herself with the taxidermy specimens he collected in his successful career as a naturalist. When a freak encounter with lightning unsettles Reina's worldview, she heads for Miami to rejoin Constancia, sleep with the married men at her sister's yacht club and wrangle with her estranged sibling over the lies of their commingled pasts.
Garcia is wonderfully descriptive, detailing an ocean that "wrinkles with the slightest breeze" or "a sky collapsing with stars." The wit on these pages is sharp, often surreal and sometimes broad, as when a "cloud of competing perfumes" surrounds an unsteady Constancia at her ex-husband's funeral as his five other ex-wives rush to help her to her feet. With a keen sense of balance, Garcia intersperses these images with raw moments of loss, broken hearts and mortal as well as spiritual death.
Throughout the novel, Garcia moves from voice to voice, reaching back and forth across generations to unfold the sisters' lives. We learn from several characters that not long after Constancia was born, her mother, Blanca, left her husband, Ignacio, for two years (only to return, hugely pregnant with Reina). Ignacio tells us that during her absence he turned in desperation to a santera, who instructed him to light candles and to produce a gelded goat for beheading. The man of science explains his irrational behavior in a manner that aptly comments on the author's universe: "When logic fails, when reason betrays, there is only the tenuous solace of magic, of ritual and lamentation." On these well-crafted pages, not tenuous at all. -- Lize Funderberg
Like many Latin Americans, Constancia and Reina Aguero read their history elliptically, coming back again and again to the same point without progressing directly ahead. We learn gradually that they are the descendants of cultivated peasants who relocated to Havana and eventually enjoyed modest success as scholars and artists. Their father, Ignacio Aguero, was a professor of biology at the University of Havana, and his father was a famous lector, who read novels and poetry aloud to an audience of cigar-makers. For most of their lives, Constancia and Reina have been separated from each other, and Constancia leaves Cuba entirely at an early age to live in exile in Miami, where she manages to establish a successful cosmetics business. The decisive event of their childhood was the disappearance of their mother, whose absence effectively breaks up the family and haunts both of the girls for the whole of their lives. Reina also leaves Cuba, much later than her sister, and slowly the truth behind their mother's death is revealed through the flashbacks of Ignacio himself, whose bird- hunting expeditions become the source of tragedy. To some extent the history of the Aguero family becomes a shorthand history of Cuba itself, especially in the person of Ignacio, who is born on Cuban Independence Day in 1904 and lives through the revolutions and dictatorships that marked the politics of the island. As in many epics, we are presented with a bold and very richly detailed portrait that is here made the more comprehensible and vivid through the microcosm of family history.
Fluid, graceful, and extremely rewarding: a work of high seriousness and rich detail.
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Read an Excerpt
Reina Agüero, cleaving to a telephone pole with thighs strengthened by many such climbs, is repairing a high-voltage cable outside El Cobre, a copper-mining town in eastern Cuba, when another storm blows in from the Cayman Trench.
Lightning, intricate as a skeleton, shatters the afternoon hum of the Sierra
Maestra, illuminating the pitted, open-cast mine in the distance. Reina
Agüero wipes one hand, then another, on her regulation jumpsuit as she works her way down the splintered pole. Her tools clang reassuringly from her belt. In the evening, she will climb the coconut tree behind the government hotel and mingle its milk with a little rum. She hopes the concoction will finally permit her to sleep.
Reina Agüero's insomnia began last summer, on the thirty-seventh anniversary of El Comandante's attack on the Moncada Barracks. On the road, traveling for la revolución, it is especially difficult to rest. The beds are unpredictable, too soft or infested with fleas, and the days are lengthened by extra work. As a visiting master tradesman, Reina is expected not only to repair the balkiest electrical equipment in rural Cuba but also to conduct seminars for local electricians and suffer nightly ceremonies in her honor. Generally, she eats too much fresh pineapple at these events, upsetting her sensitive digestive system.
A cluster of electricians applauds as Reina descends the last few feet of the pole. The ground is saturated with weeks of unseasonable winter rains. Together she and the men slip and grapple their way down the hill toward town, a quarter of which is newly lit by her effort. Reina is drenched, and her jumpsuit clings to her still-curvaceous form. She is forty-eight years old, but her body appears many years younger. She ignores the men who linger behind her, mesmerized by the size and swing of her buttocks.
Reina is five feet eleven, a good four inches taller than most of the men with whom she works. Her mouth is large and flawless, with barely discernible corners.
The most daring of her colleagues call her Compañera Amazona, a moniker she secretly relishes. Often, Reina selects the smallest, shyest electrician in a given town for her special favors, leaving him weak and inconsolable for months.
After she departs, black owls are frequently sighted in the ceiba trees.
On the way back to her hotel, Reina stops in at the Basilica del Cobre. It is Gothic and gloomy and unwelcoming, like so many Catholic churches, but Reina has heard of the impressive curative powers of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the island's patron saint. Reina doubts that La Virgen, with all the tragic ailments laid at her feet, would bother about a little sleeplessness. But Reina is desperate. She's tried every soporific--herbal teas and sleeping pills, even sweet-potato plasters for her head--all to no avail.
Not even the usual rigorous lovemaking with Pepín Beltrán, her lover of twenty-four years, exhausts her sufficiently into slumber. Last week, during a dusk-to-midnight session,
Pepín's face went slack as he dropped dead asleep beneath her pleasure.
Afterward, she lay awake in the dark until she could perceive every crack and crevice in the ornate room. Years ago, it had been her father's study, one of eight chambers in their commodious old apartment in the Vedado section of Havana.
After the revolution, the government rented out the remaining seven rooms to as many families.
Pepín blamed the anarchy of books in the study for Reina's insomnia. There are over three thousand volumes on the carved mahogany shelves,
stacked on the marble floors, and on six lavishly decrepit armchairs. Many of the books were written by her father: A Naturalist's Guide to the Pearl of the
Antilles, Reconsidering Bats, The Owls of Oriente, In Search of Erophylla
Sezekorni, and his classic, Cuba: Flora and Fauna. A former china closet serves as a display case for his most cherished skins, rare birds and bats long extinct,
specimens he himself stuffed with arsenical soap and that looked as fresh and alive as on the day he'd shot them.
Pepín begged Reina to clear these relics from their love nest. But Reina refused. Nothing had changed here since her father's death, forty years before.
Reina stands before La Virgen's shrine in the back of the basilica. Hundreds of candles burn to her in pleading and thanksgiving. Centuries of offerings are piled into wobbly, glittering towers: medallions and military badges from those who survived wars under her protection; crutches from devotees to whom she gave the strength to walk; ancient tiaras, chalices, Egyptian silks, and wedding rings donated by pilgrims and the miraculously healed. The brown-skinned Virgin presides over these offerings in a cream satin gown, a gold lamé cape, and her crown, poised and soothing as her Yoruban name: Oshún.
"Bless me, Virgen, for I have sinned," says Reina,
kneeling before the saint and awkwardly crossing herself. She barely recalls the prayers she learned as a child, the rituals of the Protestant boarding school she and her sister were sent to after their mother died. "Well, I haven't sinned exactly, but I can't sleep, and there must be a reason."
A medal from the
Spanish-American War catches Reina's eye. A year after Cuba's independence, her grandfather had come to the island from the hills of Galicia. Reinaldo
Agüero became a lector in the second-largest cigar factory in Pinar del Río and was greatly admired for his erudition and his rich baritone. Reina's sister,
Constancia, used to say proudly that this made them true criollos.
"I'm not very good at this, and you must have a lot on your mind, but I was hoping you could give me a direction of significance." Reina unsnaps a wrench from her tool belt and places it next to the medal from the Spanish-American War. "It's not much, I know. But maybe when you get a chance you could check in on me, okay?"
That night, Reina lies in bed and considers La Virgen's dark methods of grace. Reina is uncertain of her own beliefs. What she enjoys most is the freedom from a finality of vision, of a definitive version of life's meaning. If she could perceive nothing in its entirety, then why not celebrate what she could grasp with her own senses? Vive de la vida lo sublime. It had been her personal motto for as long as she could remember. After all, it seemed futile to chase what was forever elusive, when reality remained so largely unexplored.
Reina presses the musty hotel pillow over her nose and mouth and begins to count. One minute passes, then two. If she succeeds in rendering herself unconscious, Reina thinks, slumber might return. Six minutes pass, then seven. After eight minutes,
Reina, fully conscious and supremely irritated with La Virgen de la Caridad del
Cobre, removes the pillow from her face.
After her mother died, Reina's father also suffered from insomnia. But his was complete and incurable and drove him to suicide two years after his wife's death. At least, Reina thinks, most nights she manages to sleep an hour or two before dawn. Her body sighs with one long releasing breath, and that is the last thing she remembers before the faintest light awakens her, puzzled and refreshed.
Reina has thought often of her father's last night in his study, of his double-barreled twelve-gauge shotgun of Irish make, which is still in its velvet-lined case in the closet. His gun was ideal for pulling birds out of any but the highest trees. Although her father never considered himself a killer by nature, he'd been an excellent shot nonetheless, as effective on horseback as he was crouched low to the ground. Many of his specimens had found their way into the collections of the world's most prestigious museums.
The week after his death, a parcel arrived for Reina and her sister, Constancia, at their boarding school. In it was a selection of their father's lecture notes, rare stuffed bats and birds, and a dozen of his books,
first editions, glossy with color plates. Constancia wanted nothing to do with any of them, but Reina carefully repacked the artifacts and slid them under her bed. Despite her suspicions, she couldn't bear to leave the work of Papá's lifetime for beetles and bookworms to devour. "The quest for truth," Ignacio
Agüero had written his daughters, "is far more glorious than the quest for power." Their father had written this, and then he shot himself in the heart.
It is the fourth of December. Reina is up before dawn. In the countryside, people are already on the roads and the hillsides. This is a comfort to Reina, who hates to wake up feeling alone. As the first light filters and spreads through the darkness, colors seem to her less concentrated, as if sunlight, not its absence, diluted their strength.
During her long wakeful nights, Reina mentally inches her way from the periphery of her bed,
reconstructing the world in concentric circles. Everything is at its most elemental in these circles, pure with the vital sheen of existence. Then a drift of memories overcomes her, reversing the progress of her life.
On the worst nights, Reina feels herself trapped as if on a magnetic plateau, with no fix on the blackness. She confuses the stuffed bats with the birds, and the books with the extinguished chandelier. She thinks often of her mother, hears her voice again, feels the warm press of her breast against her cheek. Reina was six years old when her mother died on the collecting expedition in the Zapata Swamp. How is it possible that she has existed without her all these years?
Reina has one more job in El Cobre before returning home to Havana for a two-week vacation. The incessant rains have flooded the copper mine. The electric water pump dragged to the site is almost prehistoric and has electrocuted two men since mid-November.
Now not even the most skillful electricians will go near it.
The same group of men greets Reina in the hotel dining room, over a breakfast of rolls and fresh papaya with lime. Reina looked them over carefully the day before but deemed nobody worthy of her desire. They are all much too sure of their allure. This is a problem in Cuba. Even the most gnarled, toothless, scabrous, sclerotic,
pigeon-toed, dyspeptic, pestilential men on the island believe themselves irresistible to women. Reina has often pondered this incongruity. Too much mother coddling is her theory. After the love and embraces of a Cuban mami, what man wouldn't think he is the center of the universe?
Electricians, in Reina's experience, are in a category apart. Adept with their hands and making sparks fly, they often look upon women as something of another electrical challenge.
They are reliable but rarely inspired, which is partly why Reina enjoys reducing them to helplessness. Gratitude, she thinks, is a refreshing quality in a man.
This is why Pepín Beltrán continues to be her ideal lover, despite the fact that he's married and wears orthopedic shoes. As an official in the Ministry of
Agriculture, Pepín has nothing to do all day but rustle papers and daydream about her. By the time he arrives at her room every evening, with a packet of black market delicacies, he is nearly faint with anticipation. He follows Reina's body like music.
Reina admits to a certain vanity. She basks in the admiration she receives in her trade and in her bed, in the image of her image of herself. She is fond of saying she has few specialties but prides herself on doing them exceedingly well.
Nobody is allowed to carry Reina Agüero's toolbox. She insists upon this, forcibly when necessary. It weighs close to seventy pounds, but Reina carries it as if it contained no more than a pork sandwich and a carton of milk. Most days she makes do with her tool belt, but the pump at El Cobre's mine requires more electrical finesse. It is a forty-minute walk uphill in the rain.
Others from the town join the electricians on their trek to the mine. Word has spread of the lady electrician's ingenuity, and soon a colorful procession of El Cobre's truants and elaborately underemployed citizens follow Reina and her associates up the hill. Salvation or catastrophe, Reina notices, is always guaranteed to draw a crowd. The rain comes down harder. The citizens protect themselves with palm leaves and torn strips of cardboard and two black umbrellas marked propriedad del estado.
Topsoil slides down the hill in black rivulets. Snakes and mice and a profusion of underground creatures sweep past them as they climb. The trees are crowded with fretful birds, frogs, and lizards seeking refuge from the floods. One electrician, a flat-headed man named
Agosto Piedra, steps knee-deep into a pocket of mud and unleashes a string of profanities so original it makes everyone laugh.
Reina is the first to reach the mouth of the copper mine. It is an amphitheater of decay. In the seventeenth century, slaves extracted enough ore from the mine to meet all of the country's artillery needs. A hundred years later, they turned on their masters with muskets and machetes and, eventually, through the intervention of the Bishop of Santiago and La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre herself, were declared free citizens.
It will take something of a divine intervention to get the thick, foul-smelling water out of the mine, Reina thinks. The pump, actually two pumps clumsily linked by a series of exposed wires, is sunk in a foot of mud. Reina motions for her attendant electricians to help her push the pump to drier land, but nobody moves a muscle. Instead they look back at her, alternately embarrassed and defiant. The machine has already claimed two lives. Revolutionary dedication goes only so far.
Reina puts down her toolbox. She circles the machine once, twice, three times, before deciding on an angle. The mud sucks at her knee-high regulation boots. She takes a deep breath, settles loosely on her haunches. Then, with the speed and strength of a wrestler, she forces the power of her entire body into her right shoulder. The machine moves two feet out of the mud. She repeats the maneuver, so focused she appears in a trance, then again and again until the whole contraption sits precariously on the lip of the mine. The crowd is silent.
The rain continues to roar down. Overhead, an aura vulture wheels through the air.
What happens next occurs so fast that nobody present can describe the events accurately or in sequence. One moment, Reina is removing a side panel of the water pump with her battery-operated screwdriver, and the next, thousands of birds flee the trees at once, whirling madly in the rain. The ground begins to shudder and fissure. Reina jumps on the pump as it begins to careen downhill on a wave of mud belched forth from the mine. The pump crushes everything in its path,
leaving a flattened double wake of dirt and brambles that stops short before a giant mahogany tree. Reina sees the tree coming and is almost relieved. It is a healing tree, she remembers, its bark used to treat rheumatism, tetanus, and pneumonia. Like the earth, it is violently trembling.
The impact rattles
Reina's spine, breaks her nose and both thumbs, and loosens a back molar. A
tangle of her hair is pulled out by the roots.
Reina is pinioned forty feet high in the tree's uppermost branches. It is another kingdom entirely. Her pores absorb the green saturation of leaves, the merciful scent of the earth slowly ascending its limbs. Above her, the sky blossoms with gray velvet, with the fading light of long-departed stars. Suddenly, Reina wants her daughter to be with her, to share this air and the strange exhilaration of height. She would say: "Dulcita, all the gifts of the world are here." But Reina knows too well the uselessness of words, their power to divide and create loneliness.
Reina's body is sticky with blood and emulsions she does not recognize. Then nothing matters except an unexpected blindness, her heart's rhythm, and an exquisite sense of heat.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Cristina García was born in Havana and grew up in New York City. Her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was nominated for a National Book Award and has been widely translated. Ms. García has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. She lives in Los Angeles with her daughter, Pilar.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Cuban refugees span many years and ages, the longer we have been out and the younger you were when you left, leaves an indelible imprint on you. Garcia manages to appease the visual hunger for the island with her images. Like a 'forbidden fruit', Cuba (or its memories) continue to taunt us, until even just a book seduces, feeds you, and leaves you hungrier for more. Garcia's capture of the relationship between sisters is compelling; the visualization of familiar places appeasing -- but we want more. And the story remains with you to digest and feed that elemental hunger we Cuban refugees have been living with for so long.
This book is exquisitely written. Cristina Garcia creates wonderfully detailed pictures with her words. My one critique would be that the characters weren't distinct enough -- their thoughts were too similar. But having said that, it was fun to read. Garcia does a good job of pulling you into the story and luring you through the tale. Admittedly the story is very bizarre and you're left to draw your own conclusions at the end, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book.