I feel like there are some books that you crack open and within a few pages you know you’ll rate five stars, even if it’s flawed. This is one of those books. It’s imperfect and a little wandery, but the prose is so gorgeous and the emotions so heartfelt that I can’t help but love it.
I’m not Cuban (or Latina in general) so I have to assume some of the cultural references were lost on me – in fact there’s a moment where a character challenges someone to think of some city in Cuba that’s not Havana, and I winced, since… I also can’t – but it was still affecting; it wasn’t so much a sense of community as snippets of a culture, which is a rarer and in my opinion more difficult take. After all, how do you describe a community by talking about individuals?
This book acknowledges that New York is not just the city, it’s also New Jersey, it’s Cuba, it’s New Orleans, and it’s Puerto Rico.
I wasn’t sold on the Storyteller structure at first and I still think it could have used some work to make it more crucial (this could have easily been a book of short stories with no thread as it is now), especially in terms of structure; my biggest complaint is that it meanders. If the book was going to have that through line I’d rather it didn’t just abandon those chapters for huge chunks; maybe more rigid structure (storyteller, Angel story, another story, what I’m dubbing a second person reverie, then repeat… for example) would have let the varying stories keep their punch but helped guide the reader; as it was I found myself feeling lost for a while around 1/3 of the way through.
What I loved the most though was that this was one of the few New York Books I’ve read that hasn’t been insufferably only about New York (Cubop City, whatever). This book acknowledges that New York is not just the city, it’s also New Jersey, it’s Cuba, it’s New Orleans, and it’s Puerto Rico, and I even got the sense (maybe it’s projection) that the story knew it was such a slice of the population that it couldn’t, and wouldn’t, try to tell everyone’s story. It’s a city, like all cities, where lives sometimes intersect but most often just happen independently of each other, only visible as a tapestry from very, very far away – or with the benefit of a storyteller making things up. I’ve lived near New York and I’ve lived in a city for a lot of my life and this was one of the least idealized cities I’ve read, which is a very good thing. (It’s also ironic since it’s an invented version of New York and is fiction.)
This was a tender, beautifully written, ode to a city and a slice of its population. A little surreal, a little flawed, but earnest and lyrical and fulfilling nonetheless.