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Merle

Merle

La Isla de Los Amores Infinitos - Daina Chaviano This is an eminently forgettable story of Cuba's past and of modern-day Cuban immigrants in Miami. Not terrible, but everything here has been done before, and better, by other authors.

This is one of those books that alternates every chapter between present-day and historical storylines, in which the modern-day character learns the story of the historical ones. The modern chapters feature Cecilia, an angsty young Cuban reporter living in Miami. Cecilia meets an old woman in a Cuban bar who begins to tell her stories, following three families which represent different groups of immigrants who relocated to Cuba and contributed to its culture: one Chinese, one Spanish and one African. For the first 150 pages or so these stories are separate (and all together get about as much time as Cecilia), but they begin intermarrying until by the end there's one historical thread alternating with the modern one.

Unless you're a big fan of Cuban music, which appears frequently, there's really nothing about this book that would compel you to seek it out: not the superficial and predictable plot, not the bland and underdeveloped characters, not the vague impressions of Havana that do little to immerse the reader in the historical period. Beginning with Cecilia, though: a perennial risk with novels structured this way is that too little happens in the modern-day story, or that the events that do occur are too trivial, to compare to the historical thread. This book falls into that trap, as Cecilia does little beyond angst about the fact that she has some bad memories of Cuba (never explored in any detail), and yet the country is still a part of her. She also dabbles in the supernatural, which appears frequently in the book without much affecting the plot. There's no real momentum to her story, and she spends a lot of time on mundane activities like washing dishes and paying tolls. Her supporting cast consists of a large number of minor characters who fulfill essentially the same roles: the old woman and her great-aunt, who both tell her stories about the past; her two male friends, whose only role is to get her out of the house; the four young women who provide hints about supernatural phenomena. She also has two love interests, though the book spends a lot of time on the one that doesn't work out and hardly any on the one who apparently will.

As for the historical stories, the book merely skims the surface, often skipping decades at a time; this part follows around seven main characters, none of whom have much personality and all of whose stories are rushed, reading like weak summaries of other novels. There are a lot of family sagas and immigrant stories out there, and this book brings nothing new to the table, nor does it have the sort of depth or insight that would justify another version of an oft-told tale. And though it spans more than a century, we learn virtually nothing of history. The fact that I didn't even realize until halfway through that the African and Spanish stories begin some 40 years before the Chinese one is indicative of the amount of historical detail included.

Given the title I should mention the romances: everybody is supposed to be in an epic romance with someone, and this takes up a great deal of the plot, but readers aren't given much reason to invest in these relationships ourselves. Though, in fairness, I like to see fictional romances develop more, the opposite of the tendency in Latin American literature, which often features all-consuming love-at-first-sight.

In the end, this book just doesn't stand out. The writing is fine, though not brilliant. The dialogue is adequate, though even that can't bring these flat characters to life. The plot is enough of a soap opera that if you happen to be stuck somewhere with this book as your only reading material, it would probably keep you occupied and be better than nothing. But fortunately for you, this is unlikely to ever happen, and you'll miss nothing by skipping this one entirely.