Havana Dreams

Caroline Knapp reviews 'Havana Dreams' by Wendy Gimbel

Topics: Books,

“In the best of times,” writes Wendy Gimbel, “history is gentle; in Cuba, it has been harsh, severe.” This simple statement belies a more complex truth — that history has a defining potency, forming the most essential core of emotional experience; that we are, at heart, where we live — and Gimbel brings the harshest aspects of that belief to light in “Havana Dreams,” her evocative, compassionate story of the way three generations of Cuban women were affected by Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

Gimbel’s interest in the subject is deeply personal: As an infant, she was abandoned by her parents and raised by her grandmother, a Cuban matron who took her on annual visits to her family in Santiago, a place that would linger in her memory as blessed and idyllic, where “the children chased each other in tiled patios filled with sunlight, and ate the sour-sweet fruit that hung from the mamoncillo branches.” When she returned to the country as an adult, in 1991, she witnessed firsthand the way a single political event — Castro’s revolution — could shape ordinary lives, altering the very texture of human experience: She saw emotional structures crumbled, family ties severed, friends and relatives driven into exile. The themes that had shaped her own early life — abandonment, disillusionment, trauma — were writ large on this tiny island, and Gimbel set out to understand what had happened: how historical context, both personal and political, could so inform us.

She tells this story through three women whose lives span the 20th century on the island: Naty Revuelta, born in 1925, a wealthy, restless socialite during the Batista era, who became Castro’s lover just before his ascension to power; Naty’s mother, an unrepentant reactionary named Doqa Nacita, who lives almost entirely in the past; and Naty’s daughter, Alina, who is Castro’s illegitimate, unacknowledged child.

In Gimbel’s hands, their lives become an intimate historical document, one that illuminates the intersection between a woman’s internal and external worlds. The story of Naty is an allegory of Castro’s failed promise, of “the ruin of the revolution.” Passionate and rebellious, coming of age at a time of social upheaval, Naty sacrificed both her marriage and her future happiness on the altar of his ideology, only to be discarded when she no longer served his purposes. Doqa Nacita, strong-willed and materialistic, reflects the protected, rarefied Cuba of the past. She grew up at a time when “men sought adventure and women settled for the protections of a good marriage.” Castro’s revolution stripped her of the wealth and social status that formed the core of her identity, leaving her culturally estranged, embittered, longing for the luxuries of the past. Alina, born in 1956, suffered the most obvious emotional damage. Volatile and troubled, she was conceived in a desperate bid by Naty to seal her own connection to Castro, and she emerges as the product of an angry world: bitter, unable to connect with others, self-destructive.

Gimbel recounts these women’s stories with insight, heart and a decided lack of judgment. Any one of them would be easy to stereotype — the rebel mom, the reactionary grandma, the twisted child of the revolution — but Gimbel, a graceful and precise writer, so carefully evokes the particulars of their lives, and so deftly interweaves their tale with the larger story of Cuba’s social and political transformation, that what emerges instead is a rich and varied portrait, one that remains true to its mission. It is, as the book’s subtitle suggests, a story of Cuba; it is also an achingly human tale about false promises, the blinding power of passion, the life-altering failures of family.

Caroline Knapp is the author of "Drinking: A Love Story." Her most recent book is "Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs."

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