Next Year in Havana
by Chanel Cleeton
” ‘To be in exile is to have the things you love most in the world – the air you breathe, the earth you walk upon – taken from you. They exist on the other side of a wall – there and not – unaltered by time and circumstance, preserved in a perfect memory in a land of dreams.
My Cuba is gone, the Cuba I gave to you over the years swept away by the winds of revolution. It’s time for you to discover your own Cuba.’ “
I am not normally one of those weepy women who cry every time they read something incredibly romantic or reach an ending that they weren’t quite expecting. Maybe it’s because I read so many books; I average about two a week, and so maybe I’m jaded. Maybe I’m a bit desensitized by all the romance I’ve read, all the literary heartbreaks I’ve been through, and how easily I can put down one book and move on to the next.
There are, of course, a few books that hit me straight in the feels and don’t give me a chance to recover quickly enough to staunch the tears. The ending of 11-22-63. The pain endured by of one of the most sensationalized heroes in fiction; a tale of true identity in crisis via Rhett Butler’s People. The courage of one revolutionary woman in The Nightingale. But, while I am not averse to tears, they are not typically a part of my reading experience.
And then came along this little novel, Next Year in Havana, gliding on through and then slapping me like a ton of bricks. Just typing the title down gives me a little chill down my spine. From the opening pages, I could tell this book was going to be special. It’s that feeling I get so rarely, that warmth circulating my heart as I begin to anticipate which way the story will turn, how it will unfold and bloom around me. I sink in slowly, somehow knowing that I need to savor this or that particular set of written words. I’ve been lucky lately in that I’ve had the pleasure of reading some really well-written novels. Other regular readers and reviewers will know, there are typically more duds than there are potential bestsellers. In the wave of self-publication and lack of authentic editorial support, books are being pushed out at an alarming rate and the quality can be overlooked in the process. But this book, I tell you – it is special.
Two stories, two women. Both woven together by the most intricate of threads . . . by blood, by culture, by love.
Elisa Perez was a girl growing up in the most elite of circles. Haute couture skimmed the curves of her body, delicate freshwater pearls were strung around her neck, shoes imported from France (to match her mother’s infamous dining room table) were slid onto her feet. She was educated in the best of schools and had impeccable manners drilled into her by the time she could walk. As one of the Perez Girls (a title she shared with her three sisters) she was the closest thing to royalty in the city of Havana, living a charmed life from behind the gates of her mansion set upon the very edges of the Tiffany blue waters of the Caribbean.
The signs of impending revolution were all there; the underlying hatred for President Batista coursing its way through Havana and Cuba like so much poison in the vein. A land that was landing upon the cusp of something new, the air was charged and spiking with frenetic electricity every time Elisa stepped out from behind the gates and mingled with the general public. But as one of the elite and chosen, how close would the dangers actually come to her? Surely it would all dissipate soon, and things would go back to the order and refinement that she was so accustomed to. Dancing at parties with son’s of well-known diplomats, her father’s influence as a sugar baron establishing and cementing their place in society, and summers spent abroad in the most glamorous areas Europe and America had to offer . . . this was the life of Elisa Perez.
But in the smoky crowd at a forbidden party thrown in the wrong part of town, Elisa’s life changed in an instant. The white dress she’d worn made her stand out, which was not her intention. She was aware that she had overdressed and she remained underwhelmed with her surroundings as she watched her sisters Beatriz and Isabel flutter through the crowd and disappear within its murky waters, set upon a mission she had no interest in. Since their brother Alejandro had been banished from the family for his controversial political views, his twin Beatriz was constantly lurking around the fringes of the revolutionaries and their unsavory cohorts, desperate for any information she could garner. This party was just another excuse to mingle with the riff-raff. Isabel and Elisa followed in her steps when they could – the Perez Girls always had each other’s back – but something in the atmosphere made Elisa hold back.
She looked up and saw him. This tall, tanned, enigmatic man. The magnetic pull was palpable; two opposite sides of a coin being pushed towards a prime meridian. He felt her gaze upon him and met her eye, and it was as if the world stood still. Before she knew it, he was beside her, pressing her into the wall as the sticky arms, lithe legs, and dancing bodies around them seemed to swell with the crescendo of the music. The air was thick with the desire of escape, with the frenzy that comes with the terror of things being ripped away. This was the beginning.
Pablo was not the man for her on paper, but he was the man of her heart. She fell in love in a matter of minutes and the feelings only intensified as the days, weeks, and months went on . . . absence making the heart’s desires grow ever stronger. Elisa was scandalized even by herself, in her draw to the revolutionary man who was so intent upon doing everything he could to bring down everything she had ever known. A direct ally of Fidel Castro, the love of Elisa’s life was not the man she needed . . . but he was the man she so desperately wanted.
Decades later, Elisa’s granddaughter is set with a task. Her grandmother has died, passed away peacefully in her sleep in the grand bed under the roof of her palatial Coral Gables estate. The Perez family fled Cuba when things got too bad, when Batista was finally overthrown and Fidel Castro took upon his new role as puppeteer of the country of Cuba. They had no choice; it was either be imprisoned or killed, or seek refuge in America. In Miami, among the vast majority of others possessing Cuban descent and ingrained passion. They built an entirely new life, and they left nearly everything behind.
Marisol has never known poverty or governmental hardships, but she has an idea of the troubles it all brought. Sitting at her grandmother’s knee for the entirety of her life, Marisol grew to love Cuba through the stories she was told. A beautiful paradise, full of culture and music and food. An ocean the color of which could never properly be put into words. A people of spirit, but one that was nearly crushed with revolution and communism. She has grown up knowing the razor-sharp hatred her grandmother had for Fidel Castro.
A final request given to Marisol through her grandmother’s last will and testament will send her into a land that is equal parts past and present, and set her upon a quest to find out the secrets of her grandmother’s personal history. Finally able to put her own two feet on Cuban soil and feel her heritage seep into her soul organically, Marisol is desperate to find a final resting place for her grandmother and to embrace as much of her culture as she can. Walking among brightly painted buildings and streets saturated with iconic vehicles, it is like stepping into another era. How different is the Cuba today than the Cuba her grandmother lived in? To see the stories put to real life is sure to be a magical experience, only made richer by the people who will lead her along the way. An old best friend, beloved as a sister. A handsome history teacher. A woman in service to the Perez family. They will all tell the most important stories Marisol will ever hear. But danger still lurks behind the furthermost corners of Havana, especially for a Perez Girl.
Pulling together scraps of memories through a series of letters that were long ago buried under a palm tree amongst the sounds of a crashing ocean, Marisol will seek to reunite her grandmother with all that was taken from her as a young girl being forced out of Havana and a life she loved. What she will find along the way will surprise her, and rejuvenate her in ways she never expected . . . all while helping her to finally understand her Cuban heritage and what it means to yearn for that “next year in Havana.”
Chanel Cleeton, an author best known for her line of contemporary romances, has truly blown me away with this novel. Admittedly quite ignorant when it comes to Cuban history and of more recent political climates, I found myself completely wrapped up in the heartbreak of a country in turmoil. The death of one era was not the rebirth of another, as so many had hoped, and Cleeton perfectly married the two with a storyline that made perfect and appropriate sense. Cleeton was a mastermind at weaving history with real feelings, and not once did I feel anything was preachy or over-written. Sometimes historical novels set in times of war can feel heavy, but Next Year in Havana was fluid, bright, and smooth. I felt myself catching my breath more times than not, and the beautiful way in which Cleeton described the country of her heritage was singular and special. The tandem storyline was brilliant and wonderfully executed; the characters so richly drawn in incredibly vivid colors, and the overall effect was stunning and emotional.
Giving this novel 5 out of 5 stars, I am waiting on pins and needles for a sequel of sorts . . . as I’ve found out that Cleeton is penning a story of Elisa’s sister, the gorgeously mysterious Beatriz. I recommend this book to lovers of history and of strong female leads, and encourage readers of romance to give this lovely story a try. It will make you yearn for sugary beaches and flavorful Cuban food, for music set to drums and cocktail dresses that touch the knees, Panama hats and stolen kisses. This book was perfect.