Dancing to "Almendra" A Novel

Mayra Montero; Translated by Edith Grossman




Trade Paperback

272 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
A New York Times Notable Book of the YearA San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of the Year Havana, 1957. On the same day that the Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is assassinated in a barber's chair in New York, a hippopotamus escapes from the zoo and is shot and killed by its pursuers. Assigned to cover the zoo story, Joaquín Porrata, a young Cuban journalist, finds himself embroiled in the mysterious connections between the hippo's death and the mobster's when a secretive zookeeper whispers that he "knows too much." In exchange for a promise to introduce the keeper to his idol, the film star George Raft, now the host of the Capri casino, Joaquín gets information that ensnares him in an ever-thickening plot of murder, mobsters, and finally, love.
The love story is another mystery. Told by Yolanda, a beautiful ex-circus performer now working for Havana's famed Sans Souci cabaret, it is interwoven with Joaquín's underworld investigations, eventually revealing a family secret deeper even than Havana's brilliantly evoked enigmas.
In Dancing to "Almendra," Mayra Montero has created an ardent and thrilling tale if innocence lost, of Havana's secret world that was "the basis for the clamor of the city," and of the end of a violent era of fantastic characters and extravagant crimes. Based on the true history of a bewitching city and its denizens, "Almendra" is the latest from one of Latin America's most impassioned and intoxicating voices.


Praise for Dancing to "Almendra"

"Dancing to 'Almendra,' [Mayra Montero's] ninth novel, [is] lovingly translated by Edith Grossman: a flawless little book with a deceptively light touch . . . Montero has been a newspaper reporter herself, and she brings to the story a reporter's emphasis on narrative momentum and easy detail, while leaving behind a reporter's reliance on boilerplate and cliché. Her writing is swift and agile; it dances like a tough kid in a good suit—well pressed but never boring, and never calling attention to the strength that lies behind it. Not a single sentence in the book stands out as being special or quotable, but none seem flat, either; they roll past you without ever knocking you over, and if you think that's an easy feat to pull off, I'd ask you to reconsider. It isn't often done . . . I devoured [the book] with absolute delight, and I'm looking forward to reading it again, and to reading anything Montero might come up with next. It's tempting to think in categories—it's tempting to me, anyway: so sue me—but a good novel denies them, nimbly and without visible effort. This novel is great fun to read, and a paradoxical thing to contemplate. When I was done, I wasn't sure if it was an especially well-written genre story, or a literary book based upon an especially raffish plot. Perhaps there's no difference between the two, after all."—Jim Lewis, The New York Times Book Review
“An escaped hippopotamus has been killed at the Havana Zoo, but cub reporter Joaquín Porrata would much rather be writing about the death in New York that same day of Mafia executioner Umberto Anastasia. Then a zoo worker reveals a connection. It’s 1957, and we are instantly hooked into this gripping novel about the beautiful, steaming rotten bulk of pre-Castro Cuba, where very little is the way it seems . . . The novels shimmers like a heat mirage . . . Without a wasted word, Montero weaves together the real and fictional—George Raft, New York, the Mafia summit at Apalachin, gossamer beauty and blood-soaked brutality—in a web that personifies Cuba of 1957. One can only hope Montero will move from this triumph to turn her skillful eye on some more recent encounters between the Latin and Yankee realities. We will all see much more clearly when she does.”—Joanne Omang, The Washington Post Book World
"In pre-Castro Cuba, jointly run by dictator Fulgencio Batista and the Mafia, there is chicanery behind every important door. Casino lackeys carry suitcases of money to Miami every weekend; people are murdered, cut up and fed to the carnivores at the zoo. Night life is exotic, seedy, corrupt: more ‘Cabaret’ than Las Vegas. Mayra Montero, a Cuban writer now living in Puerto Rico, brings this milieu to vivid life in Dancing to ‘Almendra’—a novel that lets fictional characters collide with real-life gangsters and movie legends. The result is an irresistible mélange about Havana when it was truly La Habana . . . Edith Grossman’s graceful translation brings this absorbing story to life.”—Valerie Ryan, The Seattle Times
“In Dancing to ‘Almendra’—which refers to a Cuban danzón by Abelardo Valdés—Montero gives us a taut and riveting coming of age novel set near the close of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship in 1958 . . . Montero weaves a gripping narrative, which now and again, dips into the wildly comic . . . The tonal extremes of Montero’s book gives us, paradoxically, a feel for the real, and the reader is propelled, between spasms of tears and laughter, toward the narrative’s conclusion.”—Victor Cruz-Lugo, The Latin Forum
“In Mayra Montero’s masterful Dancing to ‘Almendra,’ some of the characters enter the story already heartbroken, and their bodies are broken too . . . Montero has played her usual sleight-of-hand.”—Enrique Fernandez, The Miami Herald

“Novelist Mayra Montero, who attests to the influence of Alejo Carpentier, burst onto the literary scene in the 1990s, espousing a new Caribbean ethos. Her diverse plots jump from island to island, revealing the complexity of AfroCaribbean and transcultural practices, and Western influence in decay. Dancing to ‘Almendra’ is a pulsating rendition of life during the final years of the Batista era, in an ambience of casino life, movie stars, and organized prostitution.”—Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez, Américas

"Mayhem, mobsters and romance play out in a vivid evocation of Havana's fantastic secret world: its infamous criminal underbelly, long departed with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution."—The Dallas Morning News
"Organized crime and disorganized personal relations are tightly intertwined in the prolific Cuban-born Puerto Rican author's latest. It begins most auspiciously, with a killer first sentence that links the death of a New York mobster with the ill-fated escape of a hippopotamus from the Havana zoo . . . Montero presents a lively bevy of mutually involved characters, notably 22-year-old newspaper reporter Joaquín Porrata, who has retreated from his family's numerous dysfunctions (philandering dad, unstable mom, sexually befuddled younger sister) to work for a local daily, where he's 'allowed to interview only comedians and whores.' Acting on a tip from an old pal, who works at the zoo, Joaquín connects dots that suggest crime boss Umberto Anastasia was whacked before he could receive a 'message'—presumably sent by Havana-based crime lord Meyer Lansky and his boys, to discourage any rival gangs from muscling in on their casinos (it's the late-1950s, when crime still paid quite well). A parallel story, narrated by a one-armed circus performer (Yolanda, for whom Joaquín falls hard), unearths many more secrets, endangering Joaquín and his loved ones . . . Montero has done her homework, and the novel is filled with bizarre characters (a gay choreographer afflicted with leprosy is by no means the most outre), rapid-fire action and enough blood and guts to satisfy a cage of hungry lions.”—Kirkus Reviews
"[Mayra Montero] probes beneath the surface to expose the tangled emotions and complex allegiances within a society on the eve of destruction."—Bill Ott, Booklist
"Highly recommended . . . [A] vivid portrait of the last days of violent, corrupt, pre-revolutionary Cuba. The Cuban-born Montero . . . has written a book that serves as both social commentary and a well-constructed mystery."—Mary Margaret Benson, Library Journal
"[C]ompelling . . . Montero blends fact and fiction with narrative aplomb: as in Graham Greene, the drama of a nation disintegrating in crisis is made very personal."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Mayra Montero is the author of a collection of short stories and of eight novels, including The Messenger, The Last Night I Spent with You, and Captain of the Sleepers.  She was born in Cuba and lives in Puerto Rico, where she writes a weekly column in El Nuevo Dia newspaper.

Read the full excerpt


  • Mayra Montero; Translated by Edith Grossman

  • Mayra Montero is the author of a collection of short stories and of eight novels, including The Messenger, The Last Night I Spent with You, and Captain of the Sleepers.  She was born in Cuba and lives in Puerto Rico, where she writes a weekly column in El Nuevo Día newspaper.

  • Mayra Montero Ingrid Torres




Download PDF



Go to website


Sign Up


Reading Group Guide