When We Left Cuba, by Chanel Cleeton
Berkley an Imprint of Penguin Random House @2019
When We Left Cuba is character driven and checks all the boxes for a compelling page-turner. In the final chapter of Next Year in Havana, Beatriz, as an older woman, let’s her young niece, Marisol, know she’s kissed Ché Guevara. It was a long wait after finishing the first novel to find out who this woman, Beatriz, really was. In the sequel we meet Beatriz as a young Cuban exile, still in love with Cuba and the men in her life.
Beatriz Perez, the most beautiful of the Perez sisters, now lives in Palm Beach Florida. We know her intentions are to change the course of history, but she thinks she just wants to get back to Havana and her brother, Alejandro. It’s Beatriz’s story of revenge and romance.
While her sisters and parents have worked to start new lives, Beatriz is focused on revenge. She’s not satisfied to live in the Cuban exile community in southern Florida. It’s a lifestyle far from the luxury she was used to in the Miramar neighborhood in Havana as a member of the prominent Perez family. She participates in the Palm Beach social season. Her parents hope she is looking for a husband, but Beatriz is intent on making political connections to keep her informed about what is going on in Cuba. She also is not above assisting the CIA to keep tabs on Castro during his visits to the United States.
There is historic detail including the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, and the assassination of JFK. Cleeton keeps the reader up to date on Beatriz’s fight to reclaim her own country while the real life history is taking place around her. Of course, with such a beautiful, intelligent heroine, there is a forbidden romance as she is torn between two countries and the desires of her parents.
The setting is south Florida with stints in Washington D.C., London, and Cuba, but we’re reminded about the vintage Havana the Perez family has left behind. It’s a slow burn of a story about a tumultuous time in United States and Cuba.
I recommend reading Next Year in Havana first. In a time line, the story happens after Beatriz’s adventures with the CIA and Castro. However, the reader gets a real feel for Havana in the late 1950’s from Cleeton’s first novel. I was lucky enough to get to Cuba while Americans could still travel there, in December, 2018. I visited the Melecon, Miramar, the Prado, Cayo Hueso, and La Rampa. I’d read Next Year in Havana before going to Cuba. I could picture the Perez family, and Marisol’s visit there to take her grandmother’s ashes. It’s a step back into the 1950's, even now.