Saturday, December 16, 2006

I Gave You All I Had by Zoe Valdes

Zoe Valdes's rambunctious new novel is an appetizingly rich stew, full of the varied flavors of Latin culture -- part bolero, part Brazilian soap opera, with hints of the nostalgia of Oscar Hijuelos and the nutty adrenaline of Pedro Almodovar, not to mention the acrobatic literary abandon of Valdes's fellow Cuban expatriate Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Set in Cuba from the swinging 1950's to the grim periodo especial of the 1990's and exuberantly translated by Nadia Benabid, ''I Gave You All I Had'' is a sumptuous story of love and sorrow, a story that -- like so much in Valdes's native country -- is both personal and political.

Valdes's heroine, Cuca Martinez, is a spindly Cinderella born in 1934 in the provincial city of Santa Clara. At the age of 16, she flees to Havana and falls painfully in love with Juan Perez, a smooth operator with two unfortunate attributes: bad breath and mob ties. Even more unfortunately, Juan will vanish after a brief but chaste encounter, only to reappear eight years later as a nightclub impresario and sometime manager of Edith Piaf (an example, we're told, of ''intelligence and sensuality rolled into one, and when those two things meet in one woman, you might as well . . . head for the exit quick or you're a goner'').
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