The Agüero 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/i>… See more details below
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 motherthe mysterious Blancawhich 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 parentsdead many years but still powerfully presentthat 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 daughtersthe picture of a dark and uncertain history sifted with half-truths and pure liesis 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.
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.
"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
- Random House Value Publishing, Incorporated
- Publication date:
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, Pilar.
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