In 1959 Elisa Perez, her sisters, mother, and father leave Cuba as Batista falls to Fidel Castro. She leaves behind a forbidden love, their stately mansion, and a lifestyle of bespoke gowns and parties. However, she also leaves buried treasures and her best friend, Ana.
Decades later, Elisa’s granddaughter, Marisol, returns to Cuba with Elisa’s ashes to discover the country her great grandparents and their daughters left behind. It is a timely story for our current quandary over immigrants and exiles.
There are two love stories, Elisa’s first love in 1959 and Marisol’s present day love story. So the reader moves back and forth between the past and present, but always aware of the main love, Cuba. "Havana is like a woman who was grand once and has fallen on hard times, and yet hints of her former brilliance remain, traces of an era since passed …" Chanel Cleeton fills the story with prose taking the reader back to Havana in all its splendor and to the Havana of the present day, stuck in a time warp, "a photograph faded by time and circumstance, its edges crumbling to dust."
The history of the revolution and politics are woven into the daily lives of the Perez family past and present. There are glimpses into their relationships with Castro and Batista and the dangers they face daily because of their alliances. "Loyalty is a complicated thing—where does family fit on the hierarchy? Above or below country? Above or below the natural order of things? Or are we above all else loyal to ourselves, to our hearts, our convictions, the internal voice that guides us?"
"Very few can afford the luxury of being political in Cuba. And no one can afford the luxury of not being political in Cuba." The dilemma is real, then and now. It’s a love story, a story of loss and also a cautionary tale of the power of men in control of government—"Terrible things rarely happen all at once. They’re incremental so people don’t realize how bad things have gotten until it’s too late. He swore up and down that he wasn’t a communist. That he wanted democracy. Some believed him. Other’s didn’t."
"… There are dozens of ways you can betray your country—broken promises, failed policies, the sound of a firing squad … and then there’s the silent betrayal—the most insidious one of all."
The beauty of Cuba, is what Marisol can appreciate. She understands why her grandmother stared across the water from her home in south Florida, squinting to see a glimpse of the beautiful island left behind. However, the political climate remains unchanged for the Cubans who remain. She has to be careful when expressing her opinions to her new friends there, the old friends of her grandmother—"I can’t fathom living in a world where you have no rights, where there is no oversight, no accountability. The U.S. isn’t perfect, there’s injustice everywhere I turn. But there’s also a mechanism that protects its citizens—the right to question when something is wrong, to speak out, to protest, to be heard …"
Marisol is successful in finding the perfect place to spread her grandmother’s ashes and her accomplice is an unexpected surprise. There are other treasures and secrets to be unearthed in Elisa’s old neighborhood, but it becomes apparent that Marisol may have overstayed her welcome, as she has been watched. This is a well-written novel, with beautiful descriptions of the scenery, food and lifestyle in Cuba. It also promises future stories of other members of the family, especially Beatriz, “I kissed Che Guevara once.”
In the early chapters of Next Year in Havana, we meet Beatriz, a mysterious young woman, Elisa’s sister. She is possibly aligned with the revolution, beautiful, and sought after. However, she’s spunky and allusive, making the reader want to know more about her. This promise will be fulfilled in When We Left Cuba, a future novel to be released by Cleeton. We are left with an impression of her in her seventies, “Darling, you bring a questionable hat back with you, one you’ll probably never wear but can’t resist because you’re on vacation. Maybe even a bottle of rum. But a man?” She promises to be quite the character, and I look forward to reading more about her.