St. Petersburg Times
Review: Fabiola Santiago’s ‘Reclaiming Paris’ is a powerful work
By William McKeen, Special to the Times
In print: Sunday, November 23, 2008
Okay, before we get started talking about this book,
maybe we need a cold shower.
There. All better now.
Reclaiming Paris is hot, not tawdry-romance-novel hot, but Garcia-Marquez-meets-Anais-Nin hot. The language is elegant and has the flavor, at times, of magical realism. Giving a plot synopsis won’t do justice to the book, because it will come off sounding like a bodice ripper. It’s not. With that caveat, we can tell you that it’s the story of a young Cuban-born woman and her artistic, spiritual and sexual awakening.
Damn. Sounds like a romance novel. (Time for another shower, too.)
Okay, let’s try again: Marisol is a poet and archivist in Miami. We meet her in present day, and the intensity of her affair with the suave and powerful Jose Antonio leads to a series of sexual reminiscences: the gringo boyfriend from her college days in Iowa (Iowa?), the picture-perfect episode in Paris and her loving relationship with her grandmother. The flashbacks to her abuela’s early life read like a lost passage from Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Wherever Marisol goes, she carries her abuela with her as her conscience, and the strength of this bond between women that cannot be erased, even by death, is the heart that holds the book together.
The window to Marisol’s story is perfume. She changes men, she changes her scent, a device to propel the narrative from exotic Miami to corn-fed Iowa City to the romantic pinnacle of Paris.
Through it all, Fabiola Santiago writes with clarity and grace. This is an astonishingly good book, filled with wisdom and great eroticism. The sex scenes would no doubt be clumsy in the hands of a male writer, but her writing is as startling and sensual as Nin’s classic Delta of Venus.
Santiago is a longtime writer and editor for the Miami Herald. Add her name to the list of these other fine writers produced by that newsroom: Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan and Dave Barry.
William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.
Atria Books (290 pp.)
Sep. 16, 2008
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Santiago’s debut novel is a romantic ode to Cuba, “the Paris of the Caribbean,” and its diaspora.
A story that begins with a love affair gone sour blossoms into a lush tale of sensory delights, history and memory. Marisol, who fled Cuba as a child with her abuela (grandmother), juggles being true to her Cuban heritage and navigating life in Miami as an independent, free-thinking woman. As she seeks happiness with a series of men, many of them also Cuban exiles, she tries to discover who she is and the role Cuba has in her life. Memory is the leitmotif that dances through the pages—from “the sands of my best childhood memories” to the things she cannot remember, such as the cause of her father’s death or her mother’s madness. Only when she unravels the mystery that clouded her childhood can she find true happiness within her heart. Santiago weaves together tales of longing for the lost paradise of prerevolutionary Cuba and the reality of exile in Miami, from the rich cultural life the immigrants have created in their new homeland to the city’s political machinations, is the picture of a culture that is mournful yet impassioned, striving to succeed in its new land while yearning for the old. Cuban and Latino readers will find much to identify with in this richly nuanced novel, and others will find it a fascinating inside look at a culture that is too often viewed as monolithic and alien.
A true rarity—an erotic yet intelligent tale. (Agent: Thomas Colchie/The Colchie Agency)
Santiago, Fabiola (Author)
Sep 2008. 288 p. Atria, hardcover, $24.95. (9781416551126).
Santiago follows poet and historical archivist Marisol as she struggles to find love and learn more about her Cuban heritage in Miami’s expatriate Cuban community. The novel is divided into segments according to the perfume Marisol wears at each point in her life. For her, each scent represents a certain relationship or time period. As the story begins, Marisol is wearing a perfume called Pleasures, and she is having an affair with a married man who refused to leave his wife. Later she meets Gabriel, who becomes one of her great loves, and for him she wears Habanita, a scent they discover together in Europe. Santiago elevates this seemingly merely glamorous and romantic tale above the usual chick-lit fare by smoothly integrating immigration issues and a dash of mystery into the plot. And as the novel draws to a close, Marisol’s troubles with men finally lead her to investigate her past, with the help of friends, and what she learns is both shocking and illuminating.
– Katherine Boyle
Atria: S. & S. 2008. c.288p. ISBN 978-1-4165-5112-6. $24.95. F
Verdict: Poet, essayist, and newspaper writer Santiago crafts an authentic tale of an immigrant’s search for self-discovery in her debut novel that provides a descriptive view into Cuban culture. Despite its weak ending, this is not usual chick lit fare and is highly recommended for large public libraries.
Background: From Wind Song to Habanita, free-spirited Marisol changes her perfumes at the start of every new relationship. As a child, the narrator migrated to Miami with her grandmother whose death at Marisol’s college graduation is one more tragedy (she lost her father at age six and her mother suffered from mental health shortly after) that motivates her to seek closeness to Cuba through the men she becomes involved with. However as she travels across Europe, most notably to Paris, Marisol soon realizes that she must relinquish her idealized views of Cuba in order to find her authentic self.
– Natasha Grant, New York