When We Left Cuba
by Chanel Cleeton
“Tonight, I looked at myself in the mirror, and it occurred to me that perhaps adulthood has come not with a white gown and a view thrust upon me against my wishes, but rather in this moment, with this decision to claim my womanhood, to use it to get what I want rather than what everyone else wants for me.
Tonight, I feel powerful.”
I’ve been waiting for this one.
It was about a year ago when I requested this little book called Next Year in Havana. I’d just celebrated the first anniversary of my little writing blog, and I was high on its unexpected success. Everyone who knows me knows I’m obsessed with books and reading. I have been since I was a child. Books meant being able to escape a childhood that was teeming with abuse and mixed messages. Much like they did for Matilda, books took on a pivotal role in the person I ended up becoming as an adult.
I wonder sometimes if authors realize the impact they can have when they sit down to pen a novel. I was raised by Charlotte from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. My best friends were Kristy and Mary Anne from Ann M. Martin’s Baby-sitters Club. Nancy Drew studiously kept watch over the creeping shadows of my room at night for me, and Betty Ren Wright’s novel The Dollhouse Murders helped me pass summer after summer in the humid Louisiana countryside.
Year after year, summer would come around and subsequently so would requests for book recommendations. Texas gets HOT, and that means many days either by the pool or propped up under the air conditioning at home. It’s the perfect time to catch up on reading. I decided that maybe I needed a place to put all these books in so I could stop typing out the same few titles and blurbs … Outlander, Gone With the Wind, anything by Jackie Collins (see my range, she said with a disarmingly elitist smile) or maybe one of those rom-com’s by Meg Cabot or Jennifer Weiner.
And then it grew … from a few posts detailing my favorite books to publicity reps reaching out to me and asking if they could send me books to read in exchange for an honest review (seriously … there are people who will send you free books? Sign me up!) and then meeting and greeting over 2,000 dedicated followers on my little Instagram account … I was floored, to say the least. I am constantly in awe that people actually want to read what I write. I check my stats on this little blog sometimes and I see that I have over 700 new and unique readers each month and I wonder if it’s just my best friend hitting refresh over and over. It baffles me. It keeps me humble. It keeps me going.
So, yeah. Next Year in Havana. I’d never heard of the author but the cover … oh that cover … it stopped me in my tracks. The publisher reached out and asked if I’d like to read it. I replied with a resounding HELL YES, and then … well, I fell in love … with Cuba.
I’ve never been much in to history. I’ll admit it – I barely scraped by in the class during school. I am not good at memorizing things and history always felt like this collection of dates and names of battles. My mind doesn’t work in such a
(boring-boring-boring) linear way. I have always been captivated by storytelling and world-building instead. And, despite my typically broad love for the written word, I also shied away from historical fiction for much of my life. I was worried it wouldn’t resonate with me. I eventually broke down when my aunt suggested the Outlander series, and man … oh man. I still got a little bogged down with the history of it (Gabaldon is a researcher, and it shows) but I was encouraged to branch out just a tad. My husband picked up a Philippa Gregory novel for me and I devoured it and the rest of her collected works (fun fact: one of her novels was actually my very first blog posting). So when Havana came along with its amazing cover, I dove in …
… and didn’t stop until I was done with the entire book. No, seriously – I did not stop. And when it was over, I was in a complete slump. I felt like I’d just spent the previous 24-hours on a rollercoaster of emotions. I felt angry for Cuba. I felt sad for … well, I won’t say who, in case you haven’t read it. I felt shamed that I had no idea what the Cuban Revolution was at all. All I knew was the place was known for its old-timey cars and that Kim Kardashian went to a lot of trouble to visit the place recently … gah, I’m hanging my head right now.
Next Year in Havana is one of those rare special books. I say rare not because I’m posturing, but because it’s true. I read approximately 3 books per week, and have been on that type of schedule for years. Very few of those books stick with me. Once I read it, it goes on a shelf in my library and dies. Isn’t that sad? It’s not necessarily because the writing is bad or the plot isn’t catching enough … for me, it’s because the author lacks a very distinct and important characteristic – they don’t make you feel. Their characters don’t linger with you … the conversations they participate in don’t evoke a certain amount of something inside of you that you can’t turn away from. Havana did that, in more ways than one. So when I heard Chanel Cleeton was writing a sequel (of sorts) – I was there for it.
Beatriz Perez. Sugar princess. Undeniable, untamed beauty. Cunning and sharp-tongued. She is all of these things, but she is also none of them.
She’s a shell of her former self, an actress with a carefully curated set of tricks that she pulls out at parties. She is a shadow creeping against the wall. She is invisible in plain sight.
When the Perez family was all but forced out of Cuba, Beatriz walked through the airport with her head high and her stomach low. Leaving her homeland in the hands of someone like Fidel Castro was like knowingly leaving a baby with a vile predator.
Castro was her greatest enemy – the murderer of her twin brother Alejandro. Murderer of her family’s life’s work and business. Murderer of hope. Now that she’s safely encased in Palm Beach … in the Land of the Free … Beatriz feels anything but. She feels instead as if she’s in a cage, gazed upon as if she is some sort of prized animal at a zoo or in a circus. Admired for her sleek beauty much like the panther, but looked down upon because she could never be enough. She could never be one of them. She is an outsider. And what’s more … she doesn’t mind.
Another night, another party. Another proposal. The American men who flock to the exotic Cuban princess do nothing but further sully her already shaky reputation. She sees them for who they are: spoiled brats who are only interested in adding another pretty parcel to their growing collection. She would be looked at with the same affection as an antique sideboard. She doesn’t welcome such advances but must accept them in all of their ridiculousness, because that is her only role as a woman – to marry, and to marry well.
When Beatriz stepped out onto the balcony that night, anxious for respite from the calculating gaze of her mother and the cool evening breeze coming in off the ocean, she never imagined she would be walking onto a stage where two actors would begin a Shakespearean play that would last decades.
Enter Senator Nicholas Randolph Preston (the third, to be exact). Blonde and tan. Lean and full of an imposing confidence that mixes with a peculiar vulnerability. Elbows rubbed liberally against more than one Kennedy, the result of which is visible in both social position and political standing. When their eyes catch on the balcony, Beatriz is drawn to him inexplicably and against any better judgement she’d ever been in possession of. When he holds her in his arms for a dance, she is certain he can feel her heart beating through the remanufactured Dior dress from last season that she’s wearing. Was that the night they fell in love? Or had they been in love from the moment they were born to the world … two lovers whose stars crossed in the sky, both diamonds cut into a blue-black velvet that hovered over Cuba and America in curious succession.
The affair was never supposed to happen. Nick was newly engaged, to a woman more befitting of his position in politics. Beatriz was on the precipice of a new sort of life … one wrought with intrigue and spy-casting. One devoted to Cuba.
Eduardo was the one to bring her in. He’d been in her life since she was a girl, hanging on the periphery of her very life’s blood. Her brother’s best friend. Her first kiss. A throwback to life as it should have been … dancing at the Tropicana and walking the Malecón with a pure Cuban sunset dusting the horizon and the sugary sand. And Beatriz has to admit there is a pull there – a thread that has always been between Eduardo and she – whether it was pulled taut or hung loosely, it has never severed. He reminds her of home. He is everything that Nick could never be.
There are things she can do, he says. And so he introduces her to the CIA.
Beatriz will find herself caught between two worlds … her past and her present … and she will watch as they weave in and out of one another, like a school of fish near a reef. She will wonder if she has the power to change any of it, as a woman in a time that doesn’t accept her as anything more than a beautiful adornment. But what is she willing to sacrifice … for love, for country? Is she willing to risk it all, including her heart?
When We Left Cuba is the newest novel by Chanel Cleeton, and a follow up to her smash hit and Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick, Next Year in Havana. While the books are complete stand-alones, I highly recommend reading Havana before Cuba, as they deal with two very different sides of the same coin. Chronologically speaking, Havana also comes before Cuba, and several of the first book’s veins play off others in the secondary book.
This novel was bittersweet, and it took me several days to sit down and write this review as my emotions were all over the place. I was a bit stunned … both by the story in itself and in the way it ended up going down, and by the characters and their development. Nothing was obvious in this story, and I truly believe you have to give it a few days to really sink in and take effect.
Beatriz was someone whom I greatly admired in Havana. She was intriguing, to say the least. She was spirited and secretive. When she was able to garner her father’s release from prison, I was dying to know just HOW she did it. There was something about her that stuck with me. Something that made me inherently believe that there was so much more to her than how she was portrayed. When I learned Cuba was her own story, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
This novel, in its essence, is a love story … and I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that. When I saw the path it was surely going down, I was a little disappointed. I thought to myself – Beatriz deserves more than that; she deserves more than her story being about a man. And it’s a sad story, at that. I kept hoping we were instead going to end up with complicated spy games and minute revolvers tucked into garter belts. Cleeton hinted at it in more than a few chapters, but that story never seemed to fully come to fruition. It felt as if Cleeton struggled with giving that hardness and shrewdness to Beatriz. Instead, she gave her a soft side … one that Beatriz did her best to fight against. I could almost imagine that the character of Beatriz took on a life of her own for Cleeton, telling her own story and making her own rules.
I spent a lot of the time reading this book upset that it wasn’t about Beatriz. It was about her romance. It was about Nick. It was about stolen kisses in the shadows and the unbuttoning of dresses in hotel rooms. But then at the end of it … I dunno quite how to explain it. It was like … I just turned it all around in my head. This book WAS about Beatriz. It was about that softness. It was about expressing her vulnerability … and the fact that Nick was probably the only person who ever saw it. Well, we got to see it too, I guess. That’s probably what made her such a good spy, in the end … she had a handle on her emotions. To a fault.
I’ll admit, the moment when Beatriz finally gets in front of Fidel on Cuban soil – it was anticlimactic. I wish I could tell you more without spoiling it but … okay, the guy who shows up and saves her when she’s digging up the box … that guy – I’m mad at you, dude. Beatriz deserved better.
And I was hoping that the jilted ex of the Senator would mark her words and come after Beatriz like she promised, but maybe that’s just my love for all things dramatic.
The love affair got a little monotonous at times; lots of hanging out at the house and what-not.
But all in all, this book was solid, and I give it 4 out of 5 stars. It retained some of that specialness from Havana, and spun a new bit of gold thread for me. Beatriz is a bad-ass, and that’s all there is to it. I just wish there was more.