A spiritual journey of self-discovery

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / January 31, 2009
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Marisol is a poet and a museum historian. She's also a lover of perfumes and men. All these interests intertwine and shape her life as she leaves her native Cuba and follows her heart to Miami, Iowa, Spain, and France.

Marisol, the first-person narrator of Miami Herald writer Fabiola Santiago's debut novel, "Reclaiming Paris," searches for many things. She looks for a man who will fill the emotional spaces in her heart. She seeks to understand her complicated family's past. Most of all Marisol, whose name in Spanish means "the sea and the sun," wants to find herself.

At first sight, Santiago's novel might look like another light romantic tale, but a closer examination reveals a rich spiritual journey of self-discovery. Marisol tries to understand her dual identity as a Cuban and an American.

Bolstering the novel are the subtle references to historical immigration issues that Santiago laces into the narrative. She also pulls the reader along by initially telling only part of the story about Marisol's father's death, a fatal encounter with Castro's soldiers that led her grandmother to flee Cuba with her on a Freedom Fight in 1969 rather than face further repercussions from the regime.

With each milestone in her life, Marisol ushers in a new perfume and a new man. Naturally, the book opens with an ode to both. "Men are like perfumes," Marisol says. "In an instant, with nothing but a whiff of judgment, I either love them or discard them."

In the opening pages, Marisol's perfume is Pleasures, and she associates it with an affluent, married Miami cardiologist with whom she has fallen madly in love. As she ruminates about their dead-end relationship, the book briefly rewinds into Marisol's childhood and then flashes forward to her string of lovers and accompanying fragrances.

At 18, when she lost her virginity to a Miami police officer who swept her off her feet, she donned Wind Song, because its "flowery fragrance made me feel sensual and sophisticated."

When she takes a trip to Paris with her Cuban filmmaker lover, Marisol discovers Habanita. "Even before I smelled the perfume, I knew I had found the scent I wanted to wear. . . . I was predisposed to like Habanita. . . . It smelled of patchouli, vanilla, jasmine, and roses. . . . It was an overwhelming scent, the kind you never forget."

The perfumes serve as literary devices, marking different sections of the book, and drive the narrative. They also symbolize important places and people in Marisol's life.

When Marisol recalls her native country, she fondly refers to Russian Violets, a purple tonic that has come to embody a pampered Cuban childhood with its "strong scent" and "overabundance of spring."

When she thinks of her beloved late grandmother, Marisol smells White Linen. "Abuela and our house always smelled of flowers, and I could not let go of their scent. . . . I began wearing Abuela's White Linen, a scent too serious for a woman not quite thirty." As Marisol hops from one lust-filled relationship to another, her grandmother's scent accompanies her wherever she goes.

But if Abuela is the heartbeat of the book, then Miami is its pulse.

Santiago's writing glows when she details everyday life in Miami and gives the city a literary scent of its own. There's the gossipy air of local beauty salons, the intimate nightclubs where Cuban exiles gather and perform, and the blue-collar streets of Little Havana, a neighborhood "of hibiscus fences and shrines to the Virgin in the front yards."

Like Miami, Santiago's writing is lush and crackles with a sophisticated sensuality. The prose casts a seductive spell on readers by transporting them to each of the cities that Marisol temporarily calls home. The narrative, however, bogs down whenever Santiago includes too much journalistic detail, such as the family backgrounds of each of Marisol's lovers.

The title of the book, "Reclaiming Paris," is a reference to the time when Havana was known as the Paris of the Caribbean. It also refers to Marisol's final destination. She charts a new life and discovers a new love who helps her realize that she no longer needs bottled fragrances but only the natural scents found on every street corner in Paris.

Johnny Diaz is a member of the Globe staff.


By Fabiola Santiago

Atria, 304 pp., $24.95

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