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Book Review

Family ties, inside and far from Castro's Cuba

Broken Paradise, By Cecilia Samartin, Atria, 352 pp., $23.95

Nora Garcia's Cuba is her childhood utopia, a place where the warmth of the beach could reach so deep it felt like it was "growing inside" you, where the sea's shimmering turquoise was so brilliant that "you'd swear the sun was shining from beneath the waves."

Nora's Cuba also shines because of her cousin Alicia. In pre-Castro Cuba, the girls spend lazy days at Varadero Beach, attend chaperoned dances, and gather with their families for Sunday lunches. These cousins are more like siblings. Nora and Alicia are inseparable in their youth and remain close as adults, even when they are geographically apart.

Their relationship is the story behind "Broken Paradise," the debut novel of Cecilia Samartin, a Cuban-born psychotherapist who has worked with immigrant families in California. The press release calls the novel a Cuban "Kite Runner," but it comes off more like a sisterly "Beaches."

When Nora's family flees to California to escape the fallout from Castro's revolution, Alicia and her family stay in Cuba and survive the changes the new regime brings: food lines, laws against religion, substandard healthcare, and shooting squads.

Over the next 20 years, as the girls become women, they stay in touch through letters, and the events in their lives are beautifully woven through these exchanges. We see Nora adjusting to high school life in LA, where classmates call her "a greaser" because of her dark hair and skin and her accent. She adapts to American life, becomes a Spanish teacher, and eventually falls for one of her former high school mentors.

In Cuba, Alicia's life spirals downward. She marries a biracial revolutionary named Tony who is imprisoned when he protests against the government for not helping their blind daughter, Lucinda, receive the proper eye treatments. Struggling as a single mother, Alicia turns to exchanging sexual favors with a prison guard to keep tabs on Tony. She also works as a prostitute at a touristy Havana hotel so she can buy what she needs to survive.

"I'm doing my job, taking advantage of an opportunity that allows me to go home to my Lucinda at the end of the day or night with a bag full of milk and toothpaste and soap and meat and cans of vegetables and fresh fruit," Alicia writes to Nora in 1980.

When Nora reads this, she decides she must return to Cuba to help her cousin. Back in Havana for the first time in 20 years, she discovers more grim news: Alicia has "the virus" -- AIDS -- and she's barely hanging on. Alicia also fears being put away in a sanitarium and having her daughter taken away from her. Once again, Nora wrestles with leaving her homeland and cousin behind.

Even though she feels outclassed by Alicia's beauty -- her light skin, Spanish features, golden hair, and green eyes -- Nora loves her unconditionally and lives almost vicariously through her. Like many Cuban exiles, Nora still dreams of her old idyllic life in Cuba, even though she has adapted well to American life.

Samartin's descriptions of Havana bring the reader across the Florida Straits and the border that separates memories from reality. Her prose moves fluidly, giving the novel a poetic pulse with such lines as "our swollen eyes peered out of the small windows and watched the green of our island home become like a jewel embedded in a glistening sea."

The story loses some of its momentum in the second half, which focuses on the everyday details of Nora's American existence and on Alicia's weakening grip on her own life. But the cousins' letters, as conversational as their beach chats, keep this section afloat.

An over-the-top escape at the end threatens to capsize the book, but if you look past the flaws in the second half, "Broken Paradise" is a moving homage to Cuba and two women's devotion to family.

Johnny Diaz is a member of the Globe staff.