Cuba: longed for, but never quite attained

A tale about a Cuban family unfolds with charm, but too little of Cuba itself

Chantel Acevedo describes herself as "a child of exiled parents." Although she never set foot in Cuba, she spent her childhood imagining she could see it on the horizon.

"Impossible, of course," she writes. "But I was fed on stories of a dream island where all things, nightmarish and beautiful, were possible. The stories filled me with longing for a breeze I've never felt, a street I've never walked, distant relatives I've yet to meet."

Love and Ghost Letters, Acevedo's debut novel, is built on that longing. The book tells the story of three generations of a Cuban family, from the 1930s up through 1969.

Josefina is raised by her widowed police officer father, Antonio, and doting housemaid Regla in one of Cuba's wealthiest districts. As wealthy girls often do, however, she lightly esteems the privilege her father's money affords her. She scorns the European men he introduces her to - men who insist on wearing wool suits in the island's blistering heat - and instead marries a penniless and smirking young provincial. Pride keeps the father and daughter apart, until he is attacked in the line of duty and left for dead.

Josefina mourns him, unaware that he actually survived and fled to Florida. Unwilling to tell his daughter the truth but eager to protect her, Antonio begins writing to her and pays a contact in Cuba both to see that the letters reach her and to keep an eye out for her. Raised on Regla's tales of the supernatural, Josefina is quick to believe that her father is a ghost, writing to her and protecting her from heaven, rather than Miami.

The plot glides on through Josefina's unhappy marriage, the affair she has with the man her father has paid to protect her, the lives of her two children, Antonio's life in Miami, and their eventual reunion in Cuba years later.

Acevedo is a fine storyteller and although her tale ultimately bogs down, it unfolds with a leisurely pleasure that feels like magical realism (although the seemingly supernatural gets neatly explained away). But when it comes to the glimpse of life in Cuba that readers might hope for, the book teases rather than satisfies.

Occasional details slip through - enough to hint at the bittersweet nature of life in provincial pre-Castro Cuba. The trees in the town square are stunted into odd shapes by the relentless sun, the angels painted on the ceiling of the local theater are "each one malformed in some way, as if there had not been enough money in Mar Lindo to engage any artists of real talent."

The reader is also able to grasp the yawning void that opens when family members flee Cuba. Josefina's son Lalo leaves his wife behind and when he tries to write to her about the US, "she could not comprehend the rushing around that he described or the pace of life in the States."

Antonio adjusts to Miami but never ceases to long for Cuba. "He had missed the balconies most. The way apartments faced each other in a courtyard, the clear view of a neighbor's kitchen, the sounds of men on the balconies, talking to friends on the ground."

It's exactly that kind of keenly observed sense of Cuban life that's missing in this novel as well. In the end, the book remains a tale of exile.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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