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Las hermanas Agüero (The Agüero Sisters)

Las hermanas Agüero (The Agüero Sisters)

4.0 2
by Cristina García, Alan West (Translator), Christina Garcia

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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


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.

Translation by Alan West.

Editorial Reviews

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.
Library Journal
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

Kirkus Reviews
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.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Spanish-language Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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Read an Excerpt

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 ofthe 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

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.

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.

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.

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Las hermanas Agüero (The Agüero Sisters) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
LasVegas26 More than 1 year ago
Another Garcia book with tropical atmosphere and wonderful details. The author's focus on the two sisters makes a tight novel which is best read over a shorter period of time than her more involved novels. My heart ached when the sisters were reunited. Two sisters who were so different but connected by the strongest link - their shared mother. Finding out that their fathers were different was no surprise to the reader but Garcia reveals the mother's past slowly thereby perserving at all cost the Aguero family dignity. For me this author's uniqueness lies in her deftly beautiful writing style and her formation of characters who are intensely proud and enduringly weak as humans at the same time.