Reading Group Guide
By Cecilia Samartin
reveals the pain of political turmoil when two cousins, Nora and Alicia, take very different paths following the Cuban revolution. Accustomed to living among Havana's privileged class -- lavish dinners, days at the beach, dances, and dresses -- their idyllic lives take a turn for the worse after Castro's rise to power. Food becomes scarce, religion is forbidden, and disease is rampant. Alicia stays behind while Nora emigrates to America and struggles in an unfamiliar land. Both of their identities are challenged as they try to adapt to the changes forced upon them. The situation in Cuba deteriorates, and Alicia is beset by bad fortune, while Nora painfully assimilates into middle-class US culture. Her heart, however, remains in Cuba. Letters between the cousins track their lives until Alicia finds herself in such dire straits that Nora is forced to return and help. What she finds in Cuba is devastating.
In , Samartin offers heart-wrenching insight into the tender balance between optimism and grief that shapes the immigrant heart. How can one find peace and belonging when one's sense of home is so dichotomized? This story involves reflection about home and country regardless of where they may be.
Group Discussion Questions
1. Samartin tells the story of the Cuban revolution through the eyes of Nora, who is a child as the novel unfolds. How did this affect the book's descriptions of the revolution? How would the story be different if it were seen through the eyes of either Alicia or Nora's parents or grandparents?
2. At the novel's beginning, Abuelo saves Nora from drowning. Are there times when this early act of salvation is repeated, when others close to Nora are able to save her from "drowning," just like her Abuelo did?
3. Nora introduces Alicia to the reader with: "She's hardly a year older than meŠbut for some reason she seems older and wiser. Perhaps it's because she's so sure of what she likes" (p. 1-2). Do you think this assessment accurately describes Alicia and her actions throughout the book?
4. In chapter seven, the description of Nora's first dance and transition to adulthood is positioned in between Carlos's disappearance and the increased bombing of Havana. How do the two seemingly separate stories of the girls' coming of age and Cuba's revolution interact to propel each other forward? Throughout the course of the novel, how does the author transition between the two stories and when do they overlap?
5. What events are the most pivotal in revealing Nora's and Alicia's progressions from childhood to adulthood? Are there any childhood beliefs that they struggle to hold on to?
6. The ocean in Cuba is mentioned frequently throughout the course of the novel. It is a common place for excursions when Nora is in Cuba, and it is the focus of her nostalgia when she lives in the United States. What do you think the ocean represents?
7. The themes of feminine chastity and racial pureness are recurrent in the conversations and inner dialogues of the book's female characters. Examine the contrasting viewpoints held by Nora and Abuela on these issues, beginning with the examples found on pages 6, 63, 109, 110, and 137. Is each character constant in her opinions, or do her views change as the story progresses? What might explain their new viewpoints?
8. When Nora arrives in the United States, she writes Alicia to tell her the words Beba spoke just before her departure, "Give them your ghost heart, for they'll insist you give them something, but keep your real heart for yourselfŠalways" (p. 96). What leads them to their separate decisions?
9. After Castro's rise to power, each family has to decide whether to leave for America or to stay in Cuba. Do you understand why each character made the decision he or she did? What would you have decided in a similar situation?
10. Throughout the novel, there are several clues present that Tony has died. The hints are delivered through the eyes and ears of Nora, yet the reader discerns the truth before Nora herself realizes what has happened. At what moment did you realize Tony was dead? Were there any other points in the novel when you realized something before Nora did?
11. Times of trial are frequently chances to demonstrate courage and inner strength. What points in the novel serve as defining moments from which to judge the strength of the characters? Do all the characters successfully pass through their trials?
Creative Tips For Enhancing Your Book Club
1. Visit the author's website before your meeting, www.ceciliasamartin.com, to learn more about her.
2. Examine Cuban culture through a different lens. Try renting a movie such as I Am Cuba, Guantanamera, or Cuba: the Forgotten Island to watch as a group.
3. Bring along some Cuban music to accompany your book club meeting. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas are a well-known group living in Cuba, with music available in the United States. You can research other Cuban musicians on www.amazon.com or www.allmusic.com.
4. Prepare some Cuban drinks or food to enjoy as a group. Check www.tasteofcuba.com for tasty recipes of mojitos, empanadas, and arroz con leche.