Gabriela Garcia's debut novel gives an account of five generations of women from four different countries: Cuba, the United States, Mexico, and El Salvador. Each generation of women has in common their victimization by brutal men and, in some cases, by brutal governments.
The first woman in the line is María Isabel from Camaguey, Cuba. It is the nineteenth century and María Isabel works in a factory that rolls cigars. She is the only woman working there. Each day, while the workers roll the cigars, a reader reads for them from a book. María Isabel falls in love with the reading and with the reader. The reader gives her copies of two books, Cecilia Valdés and Les Misérables. (These books will make a reappearance in the story generations later.) The couple marries and their daughter is born on the same day that her father is brutally executed by the state for alleged crimes against the government. The daughter is named Cecilia.
Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century in Cuba, a time of revolution. Cecilia's daughter, Dolores, has two daughters of her own, Carmen and Elena. Carmen emigrates from Cuba to Miami. Elena stays put. There is a rift in the family wider than the 90 something miles between Cuba and Florida. That rift might have been attributed to politics but in fact was much more complicated than that.
In Miami, Carmen raises her daughter, Jeanette, and in Cuba, Elena has a daughter named Maydelis. The two never meet or have contact until Jeanette reaches out as an adult.
It is Jeanette who is actually at the center of this generational story. It is her story that reveals the rest of the family story. When we first meet her, she is in recovery from an addiction to painkillers and she is emerging from an abusive romantic relationship. One day, she watches as ICE officers arrive in her neighborhood and take her neighbor, an El Salvadoran refugee whom she barely knows, into custody. Later she sees the woman's young daughter dropped off after her day at school. She doesn't know if there is anyone to care for the girl and she decides to go next door to check on her. When she finds the child alone, she persuades her to accompany her to her apartment until her mother comes home. She cares for her for a few days but is incapable of following through with her caring. She contacts the police who come and pick up the girl, who is named Ana, and send her to Texas where her mother, Gloria, is being held in an immigration facility prior to being deported.
Gloria is bullied by an immigration official into signing away her rights to a hearing regarding her refugee status and she and her daughter are deported to Mexico and told they must find their own way back to El Salvador. There is nothing but brutality waiting for them in El Salvador and Gloria makes the decision to try to make a life for them in Mexico. (As with the books, Ana, too, will make a reappearance in the novel as a teenager back in Miami, looking for the woman who she thinks of as her benefactor.)
Meanwhile, Jeanette has made a decision of her own. She wants to go to Cuba to meet her grandmother, her aunt, and her cousin. She wants to find her roots. Her mother is vehemently opposed, but Jeanette is determined and does manage to make her way there and meets her relatives. She also finds the copies of Cecilia Valdés and Les Misérables on her grandmother's bookshelves and realizes that the old and rare books are probably quite valuable. How will she use that knowledge?
The stories of each of these women are distinct enough that this could be a collection of discrete but linked stories. But they are held together by blood and by the common theme running through their stories. They have each been unlucky in love and have had to struggle to make their way in the world. They have been weighed down by tragedy, in Jeanette's case the tragedy of her addictions and abuse. Each of the women's stories in the María Isabel line is layered and nuanced; we learn of their strengths and of their failures. The story of Gloria and Ana is less well-developed and the reader could have wished for more from it. There would seem to have been a wealth of possibility there for more refinement of that aspect of the tale. As it is, all we really learn of them is the trauma of their history.
Overall, with minor quibbles, I thought Garcia did a good job of presenting these women's lives to us. Her first novel was a very promising effort.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars