A tragic yet elegantly written story of two cousins, physically ripped apart by the Cuban Revolution – but forever tied together through their souls (and their ghost hearts). Rating: 4.5/5
In “Broken Paradise” Cecilia Samartin offers heart wrenching insight into the tender balance between hope and grief that shapes the immigrant heart and exposes the struggles of everyday people amid political turmoil.Cuba, 1956: Cousins Nora and Alicia are 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 worst after Castro’s rise to power. Food becomes scarce, religion is forbidden, and disease is rampant. Alicia stays behind while Nora emigrates to the United States 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 U.S. culture. Her heart, however, remains in Cuba. Letters between the cousins track their lives until Alicia’s situation becomes so difficult that Nora is forced to return and help. But what she finds in Cuba is like nothing she has ever imagined.
“Broken Paradise” is an extraordinarily powerful novel about passion, love, and the heart’s yearning for home.
Broken Paradise is not a book I would ever normally read, but when a former co-worker suggested we read it I decided (like most things) to just YOLO it and see how it went. The beginning was a slow burn, but it did burn. Cecilia Samaritan did a fantastic job detailing every spec of life in Havana for our characters, and I couldn’t help but start to fall in love with each of them. While it was beautifully and elegantly written, it was still a slow trek
The story starts in Cuba before Castro’s rise to totalitarian power. Cousins Nora and Alicia are connected at the hip, and their loyalty is ride or die for each other. At one point Nora believes she’s going to be forced into becoming a nun, and Alicia is ready to run away with her so they can escape that awful fate. There’s some drama regarding Alicia kissing a black boy (ya know, the 50s or whatever) and Alicia’s father pushing for a revolution. These were moments that really set up the rest of the story, and our emotional ties to everything else that would follow in the book. When Castro takes power and throws Cuba into a communist state, the family is split between who will stay behind and who will leave for America. And that is when Nora and Alicia are ripped apart, possibly to never see each other again.
Once Nora got to America is when I really started to fall in love with the story and the characters. I felt her pain, grief, and torment over having to leave her beloved country and start new somewhere she did not know the language or the culture. Growing up as an immigrant, missing your home and your family. There were some icky plot things I didn’t love, like the teacher/student flirting (which turned into a marriage about 150 pages later) but for the most part the story was wonderful. I enjoyed reading through Nora’s narration of becoming an adult, and learning of Alicia’s life back in Cuba in the form of letters. Alicia stayed behind, her father was executed by the government, and she married Tony (the black boy everyone shunned her for kissing). She was fully in support of the revolution, and only Nora stood by her side. And then, everything shifted, and life in Cuba became worse and worse. When tragedy after tragedy faced Alicia, Nora rushed back to Cuba to be with her again. And that is when we learn more tragic news… and the plot shifts in a …. unfulfilling way.
As beautiful as the book was, and as drawn in I ended up being, it started to lose me at the end. Where everything was built up with incredible detail and intentionality, I felt the end was rushed and too easily tied up with a pretty bow. It was unbelievable, and that let me down. The rest of this review will have spoilers –
First, was Nora and Lucinda fleeing for America in a boat. While many people did this, Nora had no difficulty in finding a way out. Then the man bringing them out was in jail with Lucinda’s father. Then they get to the boat and they’re bringing Lucinda up and they drop her and Nora saves her. Then they’re lost at seat and – oh no – sharks! There are sharks everywhere! So the man throws himself off the boat for the sharks to eat him so Nora and Lucinda can try to survive. Then Nora hallucinates in her dehydrated and starved state and sets their little boat on fire. But thank god she did! Because that’s how her…. husband finds her? In the middle of the ocean? Because he received a call she was lost at seat and so they found her because she set the boat on fire? And then they all just go back to America? And then they… don’t understand…. how Nora is… depressed?? Like, things don’t just work out like this. With as much grief and death we had to deal with through the entirety of this book, I would have rather dealt with more than to have dealt with all of that just to get to a quickly forced happy ending. Even Nora, so depressed (and rightfully so) she can’t eat and won’t leave her bed is magically cured by a long lost letter from her dead cousin Alicia. It just fell flat, and was a disappointment compared to the rest of the book.
With that said, it sucked me in and I enjoyed it a lot. I have thought about this story many times since I finished it, and for that I give it a 4.5 out of 5.
About The Author:
Cecilia Samartin has written nine novels and is published in twenty-six languages. As a Cuban American author and psychotherapist, many of her novels draw upon bi-cultural themes and characters who’re searching for meaning and purpose in their lives and relationships.
Faith and family are important to Cecilia and the source of her strength and hope. She delights in meeting her readers and is often inspired by their insights and reactions to her novels. Her hope is that her books will linger in their hearts long after they’ve finished reading them.