Immigrant stories hold perennial appeal for many American Jews. We know the familiar beats: dirty ships, Ellis Island name changes, crowded apartments, trains, the tug of the Old Country, and the allure of the new. For many of us, these are our histories — and as we read novels detailing such experiences, we connect not only with these fictional characters, but also with our own forebears. Aaron Hamburger’s Hotel Cuba sits comfortably within this genre while still being compulsively readable and fresh.
Sisters Pearl and Frieda are planning to flee to America from their Polish shtetl after World War I and the Russian Revolution. Pearl is in her mid-twenties and sees herself a frumpy, stalwart old maid — though she has an eye for fashion that suggests a deep-seated sophistication. She essentially raised Frieda, a pretty, hopeless romantic. When US immigration rules change, the sisters reroute to Cuba. It’s only ninety miles from America; how hard can it be, they think, to make it to the US from there?
What follows sheds light on the little-known Jewish diaspora community of Cuba. Hamburger’s depiction of 1920s Havana is sultry, vibrant, and brilliantly drawn. It’s a delight to watch Pearl blossom like a hibiscus flower there. Her skill with the sewing needle leads her and Frieda to an employment opportunity with an intriguing family. The fascinating mix of Jewish, American, and Cuban cultures pushes Pearl, sometimes reluctantly, to examine the values and familial expectations with which she’s grown up. As she sails across the Atlantic, Pearl muses about having freedom. In Havana, she encounters a version of it that is imperfect and raw, as all versions of freedom are.
Pearl is a striking character: she’s mutable yet stubborn, unrefined yet cultured, closed yet confident. From the beginning onward, we come to know her in all her complexity. Hamburger skillfully portrays Pearl’s potential, as well as the depths and contradictions that are always there below the surface but that are only sometimes allowed to emerge. This heartful characterization holds readers close, even after we’ve left the lush shores of Havana for the streets of New York (and a thrilling romance). The end of Hotel Cuba may take us to a place that many of us have been before, but by that point, we would follow Pearl anywhere.