Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Reclaiming Paris includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, a Q&A with author Fabiola Santiago, and a letter from Fabiola as well! The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In this debut novel, a young Cuban-American woman explores her life and relationships, each major era defined by a different perfume. From her early childhood in the midst of the Cuban revolution, through her college years in Iowa and her adult life in vibrant, changing Miami, Marisol finds passionate love and great loss, each moment leading her to a greater understanding of her culture, her family, and herself as a woman.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Marisol recollects switching perfumes whenever a significant shift has occurred in her life. In what ways do you think relationships are like scents? Can you relate to associating different scents with different periods of your life?
2. Discuss the important relationships in Marisol’s life. How does each romance fulfill her and fail her? How does each man help her to work out her identity as a Cuban-American?
3. How is Marisol’s immigrant experience different from the experiences of Cubans from Havana? Why does she feel conflicted about her connection to Cuba? how do you think it changes Marisol’s perspective to discover how her father died?
4. The narrative of Reclaiming Paris is organized around important eras in Marisol’s life, structured non-chronologically. How does the progression of anecdotes mirror Marisol’s own thoughts in the “present day”? Do you think the novel would have been different if you had known the truth of Marisol’s childhood from the beginning?
5. Explore the poetry at the end of each section. What added emotional truths are revealed by the poems that cannot be expressed in prose? How do you think Marisol’s life and journey of self-discovery are enhanced by her becoming a poet?
6. Why does Gabriel change so dramatically after moving to the United States? Do you think he was always self-absorbed and superficial, or did he lose something by losing his identification with Cuba?
7. In what ways is Alejo an ideal friend for Marisol? What does he provide for her that none of her romantic relationships are able to?
8. How has her mother’s great betrayal unconsciously affected Marisol’s life? Why does it take Marisol so long to acknowledge what happened? How is she healed by remembering?
9. Do you think that in moving from Miami to Paris, Marisol lessens her identification with her background? Why do you think she’s happiest after letting go of her history? Do you think she’ll truly give up perfume for Claude? What would that mean?
10. Discuss the meaning of the title, which refers both to the French capital and to Havana, the “Paris of the Caribbean.” What does it mean to Marisol to be able to reclaim Paris, both in terms of romance and in terms of her love and hope for Cuba?
Tips to Enhance Your Book Club
1. Curious about the scents described in Reclaiming Paris? Sample each of the featured perfumes. Bring along your own favorite fragrances, too, and share what you associate with the scents in your own lives.
2. Spice up your meeting with Cuban food and dessert. The picadillo Marisol makes for her friends in Iowa is a staple dish and easy to prepare, as are the merenguitos Marisol’s grandmother lovingly roasted in her kitchens in Miami and Matanzas. Find the recipes at reclaimingparis.com.
3. For more information on the author, her essays and articles, and upcoming projects, visit her website at fabiolasantiago.com.
A Conversation with Fabiola Santiago
What inspired you to write a first novel in the midst of a successful career as an essayist and journalist?
I began writing fiction in the early 1990s as a way of expanding and honing my writing skills, and of exploring the complexities of Miami, its history, and its people beyond the confines of nonfiction. The Miami Herald’s esteemed Sunday magazine, Tropic, published my first two short stories, “The Spy” and “Seatmate.” I also wrote children’s stories for my daughters, and Highlights for Children published “Citizen Carmen,” the tale of a Cuban girl struggling to learn English. But my journalism career was so high-charged and motherhood so all-consuming that I couldn’t devote serious and consistent time to fiction. Still, I wrote on weekends, on vacation, whenever I ended up with hours of leisure. Everywhere I went, I carried a notebook. When my home became an almost empty nest, the characters of Reclaiming Paris filled the empty spaces. Marisol, her men, her grandmother, and Alejo became my everyday companions.
How did you begin your career as a journalist?
Three weeks after I came to the Miami Herald as an intern from the University of Florida, the Mariel boat lift of 1980 began, bringing to our shores 125,000 Cubans in five months. An account of the arrival of a group of unaccompanied teenage boys who had left a party in Havana and sought refuge in the Peruvian embassy was my first front-page story. I still get goose bumps thinking about that story. While the Herald had great reporters, most of them could not speak Spanish or fully appreciate the nuances of Cuban culture, and so as a twenty-one-year-old I was thrust into a big story in which I was one of the few journalists who could interview the protagonists. Since then, the essence of my best stories has always come from people who lived the history— the protagonists—not from official sources or documents. I played the same role during the rafter crisis of 1994 when thousands of Cuban families were sent to refugee camps in Guantánamo.
Like Marisol, you were born in Matanzas a few months after the revolution. How closely did you identify with your protagonist? How much of her story is pulled from your own?
The novel deals with what happens privately within the framework of history. I “borrowed” from my life the historical chronology and I gave Marisol my birthplace because I longed to write about my beloved Matanzas. As a child exiled from her land and loves, I also identify with the feelings of loss and rebirth Marisol experiences, and happily so, with her wanderlust! Surely, I’ve had my share of interesting love affairs, but my life is defined by my marriage of twelve years to a wonderful man who was my college sweetheart and remains my friend, by being the mother of three daughters, by my career in journalism, and by the close relationship I have with my parents, my brother, and his family.
Poetry plays an important role in Reclaiming Paris. Have you always written poetry?
Yes, in sixth grade I wrote in my notebooks love poems to “Bruce,” a teacher I adored. In adolescence, I wrote poems in my diary about Cuba and my grandmother to deal with those great losses. Although my writing language of choice is English, I pen poetry mostly in Spanish, and even poems that end up in English began as first drafts in Spanish. I love languages, and poetry is an unrestricted playground for words. Poetry, however, is still something I prefer to write only for myself, as Cubans like to say, “para la gaveta,” to keep in a drawer, under lock and key. You could say that when I let Marisol roam the house, she found the key.
The novel explores the new sort of identity formed by Cubans raised in the United States. Do you think it’s important to remain actively connected to your background? How do you pass this heritage on to your daughters?
In Miami, Cuban culture is considered mainstream, so it’s not difficult or unusual to remain connected to your roots. It happens simply by existing, and my daughters spent their after-school hours in my parents’ Cuban home. Language and cultural knowledge are assets, and my parents and I made an effort to speak to my daughters in Spanish when they were little so that they would grow up to be bilingual, and they are. When asked about their background, my daughters always say they’re Cuban because that’s their closest cultural affinity, but they’re half Cuban and, via their paternal grandparents, a quarter Japanese and a quarter English, with a dash of Irish and Welsh. I’ve traveled a great deal and consider myself a citizen of the world, and encourage my daughters to connect to people through our common humanity. I want them to be free to be whoever they want to be.
You mention several literary influences in Reclaiming Paris. Which authors and poets do you consider the most inspirational to your life and work?
The literary influences in my life and work are a mosaic, and representative of the different stages in my life, and they include those referenced in Reclaiming Paris, but there’s a richer mosaic. The beautiful verses of José Martí were my lullabies, the slim novelitas of Corín Tellado in Vanidades magazine nursed my romantic adolescent heart, and in high school and college, I was riveted by the literature of the South, particularly Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the caged Bird sings. I gobbled up the books of contemporary American women like Alice Walker and Anne Tyler, enthralled by how they turned intimacies into great novels. It was not until I became a journalist working in Miami that I began to read Latin American literature, seriously and in Spanish. My first love was Boquitas Pintadas (Painted Lips) by Manuel Puig, an extraordinary Argentine storyteller who used journalistic devices, such as press releases, newspaper accounts, and letters, interlaced with narrative to tell the story of life in provincial Argentina. The epilogue of Reclaiming Paris is a tribute to him.
You describe the hopeful atmosphere in the Cuban-American community after the fall of the Soviet empire. Do you think those hopes have returned with the current Cuban political climate in transition?
Unfortunately, no. Although there are indications of some change in Cuba, as of this writing, it seems to be only cosmetic. This second regime by a Castro brother has not translated into freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the release from prison of independent journalists and peaceful dissidents, or open multiparty elections. Any positive change is welcomed, of course, but the hope that real freedom would ring for Cubans, so pure and ebullient in 1989 when the Soviet empire collapsed, has not returned. There is still hope, though. Cubans always say, “Lo último que se pierde es la esperanza.” The last thing you lose is hope.
Reclaiming Paris is written in English, with Spanish phrases sprinkled throughout. Was it challenging to write a bilingual narrative for an English-speaking readership, since the two languages flow together naturally for you?
Language is musical, and when I’m writing I’m in a trance and the words flow and find their place. When the Spanish words find their way into my English narrative and when I let them stay in my final draft, they are there for a reason, sometimes to convey a sense of place, sometimes emotion. A few remain simply because I like them an awful lot; they strike the right note to my Miami ear.
The novel is structured around different perfumes signifying new life changes and relationships. Do you also connect perfumes to certain periods of your life, or did this theme come from your imagination?
Like Marisol, I also have a penchant for collecting poetic scents, and when all else fails, I change my perfume to recharge my life with a little inspiration. I think my relationship to perfumes goes way back to when I left Cuba on a Freedom Flight in 1969. I had to leave behind people and things I loved dearly, and I carried with me only three mementos: a doll lost in the labyrinth of early exile, a set of silver bracelets that I still wear when I fly, and a tiny bottle of perfume, a gift from my best friend, Mireyita, who remained on the island until recently, when we were reunited in our forties in Miami. I don’t remember the scent Mireyita gave me, but I’ve always kept the little bottle, made of wood and inscribed “Cuba,” on a shelf in my bedroom. I remember giving it little kisses when I was still a girl.
Do you have any suggestions for first-time novelists looking to draw from their own backgrounds in their work?
Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Every day. A writing career demands passion, commitment, immersion, and solitude. Dig into your background like an archaeologist. Listen to those wonderful viejitos, the elders who are full of great stories. Travel as widely as you can. Your background and experiences are at the crux of what makes you unique as a writer. It’s what makes your stories genuine and resonant for readers.
A Letter From Fabiola Santiago
Dear Paris lover,
I could write another book on Paris alone, but here are some highlights of my favorite places (all of them reasonably priced and loaded with French charm) to launch you on a visit to the City of Light:
When I’m not renting an apartment in the bustling Latin quarter, I stay at hotel Du Continent, 30 rue du Mont-Thabor, because this small hotel is all about location, location, location—and clean, comfortable beds and bathrooms. It’s located in the first arrondissement, right across from the Louvre and Tuileries gardens, and a short walk away from Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette was guillotined! Cross this plaza of voluptuous fountains and ornate lampposts and you’ll be at the famous Champs-Élysées. Best of all is the price of a room, from $114 to $154 euros per night, and you’re in the company of the most famous and expensive hotels in Paris, steps away from places like the Vendôme and the Ritz. Stroll the neighborhood and you’ll run into the original Coco Chanel and Christian Dior boutiques alongside some of the city’s hottest new designers. Another plus of this home base: there are two Metro stations right across from the hotel, and several others throughout the neighborhood, so you can easily travel to anywhere in Paris from here.
French cuisine is world-famous, but knowing where to eat in a big city makes all the difference. Guidebooks are sometimes dated or some restaurants have become so well-known they’re way overpriced. For dinner, my favorite spot is Ferdi, 32 rue du Mont-Thabor, just two doors down from the hotel Du Continent. It’s reasonably priced and has a friendly vibe. It looks like a cozy tavern, packed with locals who know the owner, a burly Bono look-alike who runs the bar when it gets busy. Dozens of tiny toy figurines literally climb the walls, running along the wood accents, as soft romantic Mexican boleros play in the background. The food is spectacular. I’ve had everything from delicate risottos to Spanish piquillos rellenos (stuffed peppers), fried shrimp on a stick with a Japanese sauce, and Arabic-style meatballs and pasta rice. All expertly cooked. I love the sign on the door, in three languages, that goes something like this, “good food takes time. We have the food and we hope you have the time.” When I googled Ferdi to get you the address, I learned that it’s Penélope Cruz’s favorite restaurant in Paris. She likes to come eat cheeseburgers for lunch. How about that? I had no idea.
For breakfast, I walk to Angélina at 226 rue de Rivoli, my favorite salon de thé. I love the croissants, pastries, and breads, and the setting is traditional antique French, classically beautiful in worn white woods. And if you’re a hot chocolate lover, this is the place for you. They make it thick and luscious
My list of things to do in Paris would be endless, starting with every museum in sight, but I’ll give you my top list of what may not be so obvious, yet you should not miss:
1. A run through my two favorite department stores, Galeries Lafayette (gorgeous glass-domed ceilings at the 40 boulevard Haussmann location) and Printemps. I especially love the linens department at both stores, but stick with buying tablecloths and pillowcases, because the sheets they call double won’t fit our queen-size mattresses. I have two French tablecloths I adore. Even if you don’t buy, it’s a lot of fun to see French merchandise because it’s all so uniquely designed, from decorative toasters to incomparably well-made baby clothes.
2. A stroll through Père-Lachaise Cemetery is a true cultural experience. Not only is Oscar Wilde buried here in a sculpted tomb scribbled with love notes by devotees, but it’s a showcase of the reverence the French have for their dead. The family pantheons they erect are stunning. Some tombs are like minicastles, others are adorned with the most whimsical sculptures. The gardens are luscious, but make sure you wear comfortable shoes. The walkways are all paved with cobblestones, and wearing the wrong shoes will hurt. Not the place to show off your fashion sense! (The cemetery is far from the city center, but the subway leaves you right at the entrance.)
3. The Sunday street market on rue Mouffetard in the Latin quarter is my favorite. Vendors spill into the sidewalks, musicians play accordions and saxophones, and the French, carrying their straw shopping totes, stop to sing along with the musicians, especially when they break into the old standard “La vie en rose.” The Latin quarter also is a lively place to stroll at night, when it becomes flooded with people out to dine and play; a lot of them are tourists from all over the world.
This is but a nibble of the Paris I love. Everyone comes away from a trip to Paris with a list of favorites. The most important thing on a visit to Paris is to remain open to the possibilities of discovery. Stroll the city’s streets like the quintessential flaneur, with no plans and only for the thrill of the journey. Paris is the kind of city where you can get happily lost in just about any neighborhood and discover the most charming scenes: a gorgeous white cat resting on a windowsill dressed in lacy white curtains, Parisians kissing on a park bench, a sexy French man parking his motorcycle. Take a seat at the famous Café de Flore—where many famous writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir—once hung out, and practice the art of conversation, French-style. Walk, walk, walk. There’s a view of the Eiffel Tower waiting for you when you least expect it. I never tire of Paris!
Bien à toi,