By Lise Funderburg
May 12, 1997
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.