Dancing to Almendra
272 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
I hadn't heard of Mayra Montero before picking up Dancing to "Almendra" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman), but now I'm itching to get hold of her eight other novels. The Cuban-born writer has crafted a story of prerevolutionary Havana that crackles with violence, mystery, and a truly eccentric view of love. Imagine Raymond Carver crossed with Oscar Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and you'll have a pretty clear sense of the mood and narrative swoop of Dancing. The story begins in 1957 with a mob killing in New York, and a hippopotamus on the loose at the Havana zoo. The two incidents are intended as messages for underworld players, but the naive young journalist, Joaquin Porrata, who stumbles on the story is hard-pressed to join the dots until the final scenes. Porrata spends his time in swank nightclubs, seedy bars, and the general mayhem of a city about to explode. He falls in love with a one-armed woman who used to work in the circus and is pulled into yet another dark alley of intrigue and false starts. As he loses his innocence, his beloved city falls further into chaos, and yet, so sure is Montero's grasp on this time and place, we never doubt we're being led somewhere really worth going. When the smoke clears, the romance of this moment in history has been sullied, but it hasn't lost its ability to seduce.
— Elaina Richardson