Dear First Love: A Novel

Overview

The numbing rhythm of daily life in poverty-stricken Havana has deadened Danae's mind and spirit. In search of her first true love, Danae returns to the countryside of her adolescence, where the government of Fidel Castro had sent her and other teenagers in the late 1970s to work in the fields under a corrupt and sadistic overseer. It is there, surrounded by a natural world infused with spiritual wonders, that Danae met and fell in love with Tierra Fortuna Munda, a campesino girl her own age. When the adult Danae...

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Overview

The numbing rhythm of daily life in poverty-stricken Havana has deadened Danae's mind and spirit. In search of her first true love, Danae returns to the countryside of her adolescence, where the government of Fidel Castro had sent her and other teenagers in the late 1970s to work in the fields under a corrupt and sadistic overseer. It is there, surrounded by a natural world infused with spiritual wonders, that Danae met and fell in love with Tierra Fortuna Munda, a campesino girl her own age. When the adult Danae finds Tierra again, their lives are transformed and their love reborn. But the ultimate test -- their return to Havana -- still lies before them.

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Editorial Reviews

Bloomsbury Review
“An absorbing meditation on love, spirituality, adolescence and existence.”
Bloomsbury Review
“An absorbing meditation on love, spirituality, adolescence and existence.”
Library Journal
Danae lives in present-day Havana with her husband and two children. In the midst of a midlife crisis, she thinks back to a summer in the 1970s when she was sent to the country to labor in the fields. The work was hard, the accommodations minimal, and the food substandard. However, Danae met a local girl named Tierra Fortuna, and as the two became friends, she was introduced to all the magical creatures and features of the area. The girls experienced their "first love" that summer-with each other-and memories of their relationship compel Danae to abandon her husband and children and return to the country to find Tierra and reclaim their love. In her third novel to appear in English (after I Gave You All I Had), Valdes offers a graphic description of both adolescence and life in Cuba, ultimately building her novel from a series of events somewhat unhinged from reality. Valdes's use of nonhuman (usually) inanimate objects as storytellers keeps the reader off balance. This study in contrasts is recommended primarily for literature collections.-Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education, Providence Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This ambitious third novel from the Havana author (I Gave You All I Had, 1999, etc.) is, like its predecessors, a bold criticism of the ongoing Cuban Revolution’s repressive social controls and a forthright (in fact, X-rated) celebration of uncontrollable sexual passion. Valdés’s protagonist, middle-aged Danae, leaves her dull husband and clinging family to return to the western Pinar del Rio region where, as a 12-year-old girl in the 1970s, she had labored in the tobacco fields as part of Fidel Castro’s "re-education" programs for urban dwellers, and fallen in love with the taciturn country girl Tierra Fortuna Munda (yes, a symbolic name if there ever was one). This former "child enlightened in the mysteries of nature," with whom Danae is now reunited, is the center of a vortex of "voices"--heard both in the present and in the remembered past, which plaintively express the hunger for political, religious, and sexual freedom. Valdés is a formidably gifted storyteller, but her very noisy tale shouts its messages, revels in awkward crudities (the labor camp’s girls are further burdened by nicknames like Mara the Wheezer and Venus Putrefaction), and sinks into a morass of forced exoticism, magical realism, and animism (narrators of various segments include numerous animals, and a suitcase). There’s a lot going on here, but it’s still the least successful of Valdés’s work yet.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060959098
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/4/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Zoé Valdés

Novelist and poet Zoé Valdés was born in Cuba in 1959. Her two earlier novels, Yocandra in the Paradise of Nada and I Gave You All I Had, have also appeared in English translation. Zoé Valdés lives in Paris with her daughter.

Biography

Novelist and poet Zoé Valdés was born in Cuba in 1959. Her two earlier novels, Yocandra in the Paradise of Nada and I Gave You All I Had have also appeared in English translation. Zoé Valdés lives in Paris with her daughter.
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    1. Hometown:
      Paris, France
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 2, 1959
    2. Place of Birth:
      Havana, Cuba
    1. Education:
      Attended the Instituto Superior Pedagogico Enrique Jose Varona
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

While she washed the dishes stained and chipped by time and use, Danae created a winter landscape in her mind. Snow, miles and miles of snow, that was what she yearned for. Chunks of ice packed inside her skull, behind her eyes, a bathtub filled with frozen daiquiris she could sink into -- the only thing that came close was one of those frozen cones of caramel-covered peanuts they were making these days, or maybe a snow cone. She dried her hands, and while they were temporarily free she repositioned her tortoiseshell comb and gathered up the two strands of hair that both called attention to her eyes and infected them, filling them with yellowy pus. She liked doing housework, padding around the house while her mind drifted off into absurd daydreams. She caught herself just as she was about to cut off the tip of her finger with the bread knife, the only knife she owned for cutting anything that needed to be cut. The kitchen was tiny, hardly enough space for her to turn around in and stand over the gas stove. She lost herself in watching the milk begin to boil; she loved to watch the cream on top suddenly rise up into a frothy dome. Cream is the housewife's delight. Suddenly there was the smell of scorched milk, and once again she let herself be transported; this time, it was the memory of the contact of her lips with the condensed milk boiled in a double boiler until it turned to "mud," that dessert they had in the Schools in the Country. She looked tired, even slovenly -- it had been weeks since she'd felt like bathing, much less fixing herself up. Her hair kept slipping slowly but inexorably out of the comb, falling over her shoulders ingreasy strands; her lips, dry and cracked and pale, resembled those desserts that Arabs made. There were wide brown circles under her eyes. Glassy, uninterested-looking eyes. She didnt eat; she cooked for the others but she had no appetite for any recipe she knew how to make. She went about making dinner the way she would have invested energy in preparing a performance, as though going through an aesthetic act. Her mind worked faster than her hands; all she did was think, and think some more. And that left her exhausted, drained, uninterested. She smoked a great deal, cigarettes or cigars.

But except for her, all the rest, everything around her, was sparkling clean. The apartment was of a size deemed suitable for a couple with a minimal monthly income and two daughters, yet her in-laws lived in it, too. At the moment they were on a trip, to Cincinnati, where her husband's brother lived. A living-dining room, a bathroom the same tiny size as the kitchen, two bedrooms, one for her, her husband, and the girls and the second for the inlaws. The furniture, even with its threadbare cotton upholstery, the flowers faded almost to invisibility, showed not the slightest sign of neglect; the wooden legs gleamed after being given a good dose of elbow grease and kerosene. The floor tiles, their surface pitted from the effects of the salt air and the lack of machine polishing, were nonetheless like mirrors, thanks to her constant work with the mop and the creoline. Creoline is like a secretion of the mother's womb. The mop was Danae's weapon of war. A woman wielding a mop is the heraldic device of any germ-obsessed mother battling to ensure that the floor gleams, to ensure that the smell of clean haunts the depths of her child's memory for the rest of that child's days. Two metal shelving units did duty as bookshelves -- works on architecture, novels in the Huracan and Cocuyo series, plus one or two large-format volumes on the kind of art that hung in distant, unvisited museums, L'Hermitage, for example. At the windows, curtains made of a shimmery muslin fabric. Danae noticed that the hem had come out of one of them and she told herself that night she'd rehem it. In one corner reigned an antique sewing machine, a Singer, with a baby blue knit cover carefully draped over it. With a sense of pride and satisfaction her eyes took in the scene of domestic order, and when she returned to the dented aluminum canteen of milk on the stove she had to hurry, grab a kitchen towel so as not to bum herself when she took it off the fire. She laid a piece of window screen over the top to make sure a fly didn't fall in and set it on the windowsill, telling herself that the breeze would cool it. The doorbell rang, insistently. She went to the bathroom, tore a piece of toilet paper off the porcelain roller, and as she went to the door blew her nose several times.

"I'm coming, I'm coming! Coño, what's the hurry?"

She wadded the now slimy and disintegrating length of toilet paper and tossed it in a pressed-metal ashtray -- how she wished instead of that ugly metal ashtray she had a Murano crystal one! She went to one of the drawers in the sewing machine, took out the house key, and opened the double lock. Before her stood Matilde, looking sweaty and pained, although from her earlobes there hung exotic and eye-catching earrings, fake opal dangling from wire twisted out of the aluminum-foil tops on yogurt cartons. From back when yogurt still came in cartons.

"How are you, how you bearing up in this heat, Danae, everything all right? In your life, I mean. Listen, is this a bad time? Ay, chica, I love the smell of boiled milk!" By now Matilde was standing in the middle of the living-dining room.

"I just took it off the fire. I won't offer you any, it's still scalding hot. Have a drop of coffee with me...

Dear First Love. Copyright © by Zoe Valdes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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First Chapter

Dear First Love
A Novel

Chapter One

While she washed the dishes stained and chipped by time and use, Danae created a winter landscape in her mind. Snow, miles and miles of snow, that was what she yearned for. Chunks of ice packed inside her skull, behind her eyes, a bathtub filled with frozen daiquiris she could sink into -- the only thing that came close was one of those frozen cones of caramel-covered peanuts they were making these days, or maybe a snow cone. She dried her hands, and while they were temporarily free she repositioned her tortoiseshell comb and gathered up the two strands of hair that both called attention to her eyes and infected them, filling them with yellowy pus. She liked doing housework, padding around the house while her mind drifted off into absurd daydreams. She caught herself just as she was about to cut off the tip of her finger with the bread knife, the only knife she owned for cutting anything that needed to be cut. The kitchen was tiny, hardly enough space for her to turn around in and stand over the gas stove. She lost herself in watching the milk begin to boil; she loved to watch the cream on top suddenly rise up into a frothy dome. Cream is the housewife's delight. Suddenly there was the smell of scorched milk, and once again she let herself be transported; this time, it was the memory of the contact of her lips with the condensed milk boiled in a double boiler until it turned to "mud," that dessert they had in the Schools in the Country. She looked tired, even slovenly -- it had been weeks since she'd felt like bathing, much less fixing herself up. Her hair kept slipping slowly but inexorably out of the comb, falling over her shoulders in greasy strands; her lips, dry and cracked and pale, resembled those desserts that Arabs made. There were wide brown circles under her eyes. Glassy, uninterested-looking eyes. She didnt eat; she cooked for the others but she had no appetite for any recipe she knew how to make. She went about making dinner the way she would have invested energy in preparing a performance, as though going through an aesthetic act. Her mind worked faster than her hands; all she did was think, and think some more. And that left her exhausted, drained, uninterested. She smoked a great deal, cigarettes or cigars.

But except for her, all the rest, everything around her, was sparkling clean. The apartment was of a size deemed suitable for a couple with a minimal monthly income and two daughters, yet her in-laws lived in it, too. At the moment they were on a trip, to Cincinnati, where her husband's brother lived. A living-dining room, a bathroom the same tiny size as the kitchen, two bedrooms, one for her, her husband, and the girls and the second for the inlaws. The furniture, even with its threadbare cotton upholstery, the flowers faded almost to invisibility, showed not the slightest sign of neglect; the wooden legs gleamed after being given a good dose of elbow grease and kerosene. The floor tiles, their surface pitted from the effects of the salt air and the lack of machine polishing, were nonetheless like mirrors, thanks to her constant work with the mop and the creoline. Creoline is like a secretion of the mother's womb. The mop was Danae's weapon of war. A woman wielding a mop is the heraldic device of any germ-obsessed mother battling to ensure that the floor gleams, to ensure that the smell of clean haunts the depths of her child's memory for the rest of that child's days. Two metal shelving units did duty as bookshelves -- works on architecture, novels in the Huracan and Cocuyo series, plus one or two large-format volumes on the kind of art that hung in distant, unvisited museums, L'Hermitage, for example. At the windows, curtains made of a shimmery muslin fabric. Danae noticed that the hem had come out of one of them and she told herself that night she'd rehem it. In one corner reigned an antique sewing machine, a Singer, with a baby blue knit cover carefully draped over it. With a sense of pride and satisfaction her eyes took in the scene of domestic order, and when she returned to the dented aluminum canteen of milk on the stove she had to hurry, grab a kitchen towel so as not to bum herself when she took it off the fire. She laid a piece of window screen over the top to make sure a fly didn't fall in and set it on the windowsill, telling herself that the breeze would cool it. The doorbell rang, insistently. She went to the bathroom, tore a piece of toilet paper off the porcelain roller, and as she went to the door blew her nose several times.

"I'm coming, I'm coming! Coño, what's the hurry?"

She wadded the now slimy and disintegrating length of toilet paper and tossed it in a pressed-metal ashtray -- how she wished instead of that ugly metal ashtray she had a Murano crystal one! She went to one of the drawers in the sewing machine, took out the house key, and opened the double lock. Before her stood Matilde, looking sweaty and pained, although from her earlobes there hung exotic and eye-catching earrings, fake opal dangling from wire twisted out of the aluminum-foil tops on yogurt cartons. From back when yogurt still came in cartons.

"How are you, how you bearing up in this heat, Danae, everything all right? In your life, I mean. Listen, is this a bad time? Ay, chica, I love the smell of boiled milk!" By now Matilde was standing in the middle of the living-dining room.

"I just took it off the fire. I won't offer you any, it's still scalding hot. Have a drop of coffee with me...

Dear First Love
A Novel
. Copyright © by Zoe Valdes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction
What immediately seduced me was the sensation that I could not control that space, even if I'd wanted to.
Imagine a world where imagination and nature are suppressed. Where life is confined to a small square footage of cinderblock walls with little relief from the oppressive heat and humidity. Where a force outside your power regulates every facet of your life: your education, your job, your income, and your home, even your food. Now, imagine that you are an adolescent girl living this life, and suddenly you are brought to the country. Suddenly the air smells sweet and the sun sets and rises in blazing color. All about you are amazing plants and animals that you have never seen before, open space that you have never experienced before, and people with a kind of power you have never felt before. Such is the perspective we are given by the author of Dear First Love. This dazzling, multi-faceted novel delivers a lyrical challenge to Cuba's repressive regime, while offering portraits of adolescence and middle age that are both convincingly real and hypnotically surreal. Dánae is an impressionable teenager when she first arrives at a youth work camp in rural La Fe. On the surface she is a normal adolescent, able to joke and tease with the rest of the girls at her camp. But she is different, and she knows it. "The normal thing, or almost normal, was for a country girl to move to the city. Not Dánae. Dánae longed for the countryside, yearned to get away from all that bound her to her age, her family." When she meets Tierra Fortuna Munda, Dánae's life changes forever. Amember of a remote enclave of indigenous Cubans whose superior farming skills have made them useful to the government (who consequently leave them alone), Tierra, too, is not "normal." She has twelve fingers, six nipples, and guava jelly pours forth from her navel. Most amazing of all is the fact that she appears to Dánae in a dream before the two girls actually meet. When the dream becomes a reality, these two young women from disparate worlds find much in common with one another. Their mutual attraction yields to passion, and they become lovers. For the most part, Tierra brings Dánae into her "natural" world, where trees have personalities, and manatees save lives. However, Dánae must return to Havana, and to the normal life of a city teenager. Although she never forgets Tierra, Dánae has no contact with her for many years, during which time she completes her education, finds menial government work, gets married, and gives birth to two girls. Eventually Dánae's yearning for this "first love" -- so long repressed by the daily strains of life in modern Havana -- becomes unquenchable. She suffers from a breakdown of sorts, and at last flees the city and her family to find Dánae in the forests of La Fe. Zoé Valdés leaves the fate of these two women, who together and individually defy accepted standards of behavior, largely in doubt. Is Dánae sent off to wither away in a mental institution, never to see Tierra again? Is she accused of actions "dangerous to world security" and sentenced to death by the firing squad, only to be vindicated by the testimony of various forces of nature who restore justice to the courtroom, and throughout Cuba? Which is the stronger force: the state or nature? These are questions Valdés puts forth to her readers. Her depiction of the country's natural beauty, of its poetry, music, colors, and spirit, renders Cuba a magical land, where all living things possess the potential for communication and cooperation. But this parable of innocent love struggling against supreme injustice is a reality too often played out in the daily lives of its citizens. Most compelling of all is Valdés's portrait of a spirit crushed by a soulless power. This is a danger we all live with, and its ramifications are vividly and bravely put forth in a work of dazzling imagination and courage. Questions for Discussion
  1. Valdés's unusual narrative technique employs a variety of narrators: a wooden suitcase, a ceiba tree, a palm tree, a manatee, Mandinga chichereku (a spirit) and the light of the city. How aware were you that the story was being "told" by these natural phenomena and artifacts? Why do you think Valdés chose their voices as opposed to human narrators?
  2. What forces are responsible for the adult Dánae's disillusionment? Do you think she should be more willing to put up with the sacrifices of daily life? What, if anything, distinguishes Dánae from other women in her predicament?
  3. How is the adolescent Dánae different from the forty-year old woman she becomes? Are these changes part of the typical maturing process? What is it about adolescence that makes Dánae susceptible to romance, poetry, and nature?
  4. All of the girls in Dánae's brigade are given nicknames that identify personal or physical traits. There is an albino, a girl who won't stop talking, one who is promiscuous, another who assesses others on their physical appearance, and Dánae herself, who is called "duckbill lips" because of her wide mouth. How do the nicknames, and their associations, enforce the novel's lyrical and visual power? How do they enforce some of the novel's themes, such as the power of the state, the fragility of the individual, and the power of nature?
  5. How did you respond to Valdés's use of grotesque imagery and scatological detail? Were these passages distracting? Did their frequency lessen or augment their impact? Why do you think she described the camp's repulsive conditions, human anatomy, excrement, and other bodily functions in such detail?
  6. Tierra's mother gave birth to her at the root of a majestic ceiba tree that is also one of the novel's voices. These giant trees, whose trunks are "more solid than walls and revolutions," are often given mythological status. In parts of the country, these trees are left standing in otherwise deforested areas. How is the significance of this tree reflected in the novel?
  7. Tierra and her family are part of a community of peasants who are known for their physical abnormalities -- the result of inbreeding. They have been working the land for generations, and have been largely overlooked by the revolution. The government considers them "aberrations of nature" and "outlaws," even though they are living on land they have farmed for centuries. How does the existence of this freakish community compare with the camps, with the "higher-ups" who want to evict them and sell their land, and with those living in the city completely unaware of their existence? How are they a threat to the state? What do they offer Dánae?
  8. Why do you think Tierra chose to leave the country and return to Havana with Dánae? What does the city offer Tierra?
  9. How does Valdés set up a dialogue between what is natural and what is un-natural? Discuss this in relation to Dánae's love for Tierra, her life in and escape from Havana, the novel's narrative structure, and its various endings.
  10. Dánae spends much of her life as an outsider. Even when she marries, the relatively "normal" life she adopts with Andres leaves her feeling deprived and depressed. Wouldn't it have been easier for her to give in to her desires early on and go live with Tierra? What might have Dánae's life been had she never gone to La Fe?
  11. Why do you think Valdés chose different endings for the story? Which do you think is the "real" ending?
About the Author: Zoé Valdés was born in 1959 in Havana, where she wrote poetry and fiction and worked as a cultural critic. In 1995 she fled Castro's regime and moved to Paris where she continues to write. She is the author of nine novels, many of which have been bestsellers in Europe. Ms. Valdés writes a monthly column for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo.
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