From the Publisher
Excerpts from reviews of Cristina García's The Agüero
"An extraordinary new novel does justice to the Cuba of history as well as the Cuba of imagination....Garcia has crafted a beautifully rounded work of art, as warm and wry and sensuous as the island she so clearly loves."
"In 1992, Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban announced the presence of a new star in the American literary firmament.... Garcia's remarkable second novel, The Agüero Sisters, is even better, a deeper, more profound plunge into the mysteries of loyalty, love and identity (national, familial and otherwise)....Cristina Garcia again proves herself a gifted chronicler of exile's promise and peril."
"Five years after her debut, the former journalist has made good on her early promise with a superb second novel, The Agüero
Sisters....With sensual prose and a plot that captures the angst of the Cuban diaspora...Garcia seductively draws us in and refuses to let go."
"The conventions of magic realism can either amplify the story and give it resonance or fragment the narrative, draining it of clarity. Garcia's beautifully written second novel...seems to embody both extremes....Her prose is lush and rhythmic, so that the novel has an almost feverish air."
"A bold and very richly detailed portrait...Fluid, graceful, and extremely rewarding: a work of high seriousness and rich detail."
"Cristina Garcia neatly sidesteps the curse of the much-feted first novel...with the assured The Agüero Sisters, a vibrant tale of a repressed Manhattan cosmetics saleswomen and her sexy, Havana-based sister that blends family, culture, and Garcia's shapely prose into a rich, velvety world one is loath to leave."
"This is no paint-by-numbers allegory. Garcia's characters are three-dimensional and her novel is filled with rich and compelling detail."
--San Francisco Chronicle
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If her accomplished first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, marked Garcia as a writer to watch, this compelling and resonant story of thwarted relationships, intense, unslaked desires and family secrets surely confirms her promise. Set mainly in Cuba and Florida, its protagonists are not true sisters but half-siblings, a secret revealed gradually and tantalizingly as the circumstances of their mother's death and their father's suicide become clear. Reina Aguero, 48, a statuesque master electrician, lives in a Havana apartment, surrounded by the stuffed remnants of her parents' careers as naturalists. The unflagging attentions of many men fail to cure her insomnia or her restlessness. Her older sister, Constancia, is in New York, married to Heberto Cruz, the brother of her first husband, who fled when she became pregnant. Both sisters have rebellious children floundering because they're unsure of their heritage. When bland Heberto sells his cigar shop and retires to Key Biscayne, Constancia establishes a wildly successful cosmetics business catering to Cuban women. Then Reina, whom she has not seen in 30 years, arrives and subjects their relationship to new tensions. The sinuous and absorbing plot provides recurrent bursts of surprise delivered with deceptive simplicity. In typifying the Cuban dilemma in the Agero sisters, Garcia gives us beautifully nuanced portraits of a riven people, separated by more than an ocean. Those in Cuba stoically endure repression, hunger and humiliating shortages; the wealthy exiles living in the U.S. are florid in their self-pity and desire for revenge on Castro. Garcia's lushly vibrant prose evokes a tropical atmosphere and a seething sexuality, both steamily intensified by santero rituals and mystical phenomena. The two sets of cubanas share a belief in superstitions, omens and the power of magic in a world in which "Miracles arrive every day from the succulent edge of disaster, defying nature." When Constancia wakes up one morning with her mother's face, her metamorphosis is entirely persuasive to the reader. Unmoored by the reverberating effects of the revolution, Garcia's characters search for stability and meaning in a world where fatalism is their only belief. They all endure "the fidelity of certain, unshakable pain,'' but sudden insights illuminate their different routes to salvation.
Garcia's magisterial new work opens with a murder: in Cuba's shimmering Zapata Swamp, Blanca Aguero turns in time to see her naturalist husband, Ignacio, point a gun at her and pull the trigger. At the heart of the novel that then unfolds are the two daughters of the ill-fated couple: sensuous, statuesque Reina, a master electrician who cheerfully serves the revolution until a certain inexplicable restlessness-and a nasty encounter with lightning-send her into exile, and the carefully preserved Constancia, who hates leaving New York for Miami when her timid husband retires but whose homemade Cuerpo de Cuba emollients really take off. Constancia has a problem, though; one morning, she awakens not with her face but her long-dead mother's, a reminder that we carry with us-indeed, we are-our past. Ultimately, this is less a novel about two sisters than an evocation of Cuba itself. In less capable hands, the richly imagined details would swamp the sense of story, but Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban, shapes her material beautifully, keeping the reader with her until the end. Highly recommended.
Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
School Library Journal
Half-sisters Reina and Constancia Aguero can't bear one another's personalities, life styles, or friends. Constancia leaves Cuba with her young family to seek relief from Reina and Castro in the United States. As the women grow older, they are drawn together by the need to establish the truth about their parentage. In order to overcome their rivalry, they must find and face the truth about their heritage and themselves. Readers know the answers from the beginning and this perspective insures empathy with the eccentric cast of characters. Through the many varieties of relationships the sisters have with friends and family, Garcia reveals their emotional, intellectual, and cultural depths. She uses the characters' unusual qualities to mirror the absurdities of life and points out that all humans are linked together in this basic fabric of humanity. The complicated plot offers an adventurous romp through some of the spicier bits of life along with journeys into its darker depths. The Aguero Sisters will appeal to teens who enjoy writers like Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, and Laura Esquivel, all of whom skillfully capture the intricate relationships of the peoples of Central and South America.
Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
A beautifully rounded work of art, as warm and wry and sensuous as the island she so clearly loves.
Superb...Gracia seductively draws us in and refuses to let go.
New York Times Book Review
Exhilerating...Garcia is a strikingly deft and supple writer.
As she did in her acclaimed first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, Cristina Garcia centers her latest work on a multigenerational Cuban-American family. This time around, in The Aguero Sisters, the novel fixes at its core two siblings who are bound together despite a fierce, inherited rivalry. Constancia and Reina are in fact only half-sisters, sharing the same mother, whose death remains a plaguing mystery for most of their lives, especially because the only witness, Constancia's father (and the only father Reina has ever known), killed himself shortly thereafter.
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
A remembrance of things past in which several generations of a Cuban family intersect and collide throughout the ornate and highly polished narrative of novelist Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban, 1992), whose earlier evocations of homeland and exile have been refined to an even greater degree.
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.
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.