Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 1958-1959 and 2017 in Havana, Cuba
My Copy Came From: I purchased the Kindle version from Amazon.
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Review: Slow to start but ultimately excellent, discussion-worthy historical fiction! Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton is a book I’ve heard a lot about. It’s one of Reese Witherspoon’s book club selections, and I keep seeing it recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction.
To be Cuban is to be proud—it is both our greatest gift and our biggest curse. We serve no kings, bow no heads, bear our troubles on our backs as though they are nothing at all. There is an art to this, you see. An art to appearing as though everything is effortless, that your world is a gilded one, when the reality is that your knees beneath your silk gown buckle from the weight of it all. We are silk and lace, and beneath them we are steel.
Using a back-and-forth in time structure, we see Cuba during the Cuban Revolution, through the eyes of Elisa, a wealthy young woman who falls in love with a revolutionary named Pablo. We also see a modern day Cuba through the eyes of Elisa’s granddaughter, Marisol, who heads to Havana after her grandmother has passed.
As the book begins, we see Elisa and her family fleeing Cuba for the United States, and though it seems that would immediately have me interested in the story, this one took quite awhile before I was truly interested in the plot and characters. Elisa and Marisol’s stories mirror each other to some extent. When one falls in love, the other falls in love, as one gets further into revolutionary discussions, the other falls deeper into those discussions as well. Most of the time this worked, but sometimes it felt a bit forced, as Elisa’s story takes place over several months, and Marisol’s takes place over several days. So, needless to say, Elisa’s love affair felt more believable than Marisol’s did, simply due to the time that these characters were able to spend with each other. But, mostly, both relationships fall prey to insta-love.
“Not everyone has the luxury of tying their Cuban heritage to a place. For many being Cuban is something they carry with them in their hearts, something they fight to preserve even when all they have are their memories. When they left, they couldn’t take anything with them. No photographs, no official documents, no family heirlooms or mementos. That kind of exile makes you angry.”
“You’re right. Both sides love Cuba, they just do it in different ways. Some love it so much they can’t leave; others love it so much, they cannot stay.”
I think this would be an interesting discussion book, as there are many debates between the characters in this book. The characters discuss issues between the wealthy and the poor, the exiled Cubans and the ones who stayed, violent rebellion vs nonviolent rebellion, the history of the United States’ dealings with Cuba, and the ideals of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Fulgencio Batista, to name a few. At times some of these discussions in the book felt like mini-lectures, but I still found these topics fascinating.
“You never know what’s to come. That’s the beauty of life. If everything happened the way we wished, the way we planned, we’d miss out on the best parts, the unexpected pleasures.” He shrugs, gesturing around him. “We all had a vision; we had a plan. Fate, God, Fidel, they all laughed at that plan. I thought I was on one path, and it turned out to be something else entirely. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad, though.”
Because of the nature of all the dramatics and characters within this read, I think this would make an excellent television series! I’d love to see the stories within given time to breathe onscreen, and there are several characters that have interesting plotlines (the mysteriousness of Beatriz, Cristina’s tragic story, and Alejandro’s revolutionary leanings) that would be too glossed over if this were just to be a movie. There’s also a companion read, When We Left Cuba that looks like it focuses on Beatriz. I’m looking forward to reading this!
Bottom Line: Excellent historical fiction! Would make a great book club choice.