The most salient characteristic of Havana born Ceclia's Samartin's Broken Paradise is loss This is not a book you read for the seamless, flowing narrative. The beginning, set in the lost paradise, is a bit stiff as Samartin uses the almost idyllic Varadero vacations of two young girls, cousins Nora and Alicia, to establish Cuba BC. True, she attempts to ground this Eden with the overt racism of the grandmother, but it doesn't quite work. In part it is a matter of perspective as the memories are Nora's, and to be a teenager at the beach surrounded by your loving family is always idyllic in retrospect.
It is as the book approaches life in Havana with the first whisperings of unrest that the book becomes engrossing. Nora and Alicia's coming of age takes place against the backdrop of the convulsions of the revolution. From this point on, pain reverberates throughout the work. From the characters it radiates outward to the reader. There is no happiness, only brief snatches of joy. There are the travails of Nora's side of the family as they come to terms with their losses and life in a harsh new world. While back in Cuba Alicia's family is destroyed by the revolution, and her glorious young love turns to tragedy as the book traces the inevitable awakening of those who early on believed in the false promise of those days.
The ending reminds me of those lines from Wordsworth: "Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower. We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind." And in the end, that is what the characters do, as they adjust to the realities of their lives. They survive and some thrive, all carrying with them the bitter taste of loss.
Samartin's greatest achievement in this book is to give names and faces to the victims of the cataclysm that was the revolution, to make flesh history. By the time it ends, we feel as if the characters are real people we have known, and perhaps they are.