Finding Love in The Unlikeliest Place
Updated: Aug 1
Next Year In Havana
By: Chanel Cleeton
This week’s book selection is not a recent title, it was published in 2018, but I remember seeing it everywhere two years ago and never had the chance to read it until now. My friend Kim recently asked if I had read it and since I have nothing but time on my hands, there was no time like the present. Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton, was a wonderful surprise. I don’t think I expected to enjoy it as much as I did. The novel is set in Cuba and is a love story for a country and a time that was pure magic. The novel skips back and forth between 1958-59, leading up to the time when Fidel Castro overthrows the Cuban government and a second connected story that takes place in 2017.
Cuba has always been a place that intrigues me. My mother-in-law visited on an art expedition two years ago and the pictures were fascinating. It’s a place that has been frozen in time as if everything stopped in 1959. The cars are all from that era, there are no modern buildings, there is very little modern technology, but the beauty that surrounds the island is unlike anything else.
Cuba had been inhabited by various tribes of Indians before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. After his arrival on a Spanish expedition, Spain conquered Cuba. Once Spain claimed Cuba, they had governors ruling the island. For a short time, Cuba was controlled by Great Britain but with the 1763 Treaty of Paris Spain won her back in a trade for Florida. Spain continued its rule until 1898 when the Spanish American War ended and they finally relinquished control of the island. After a short period of US military rule, Cuba gained formal independence in 1902.
After a succession of oppressive leaders, Fulgencio Batista being the last one, Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government on July 26, 1959. The rebellion was led by Fidel and Raul Castro with Che Guevara. Cubans were immediately torn by this change in regime. The wealthy Cubans were terrified because most of them were friends of Battista and had prospered under him. Many of them were exiled or simply left on their own out of fear. The impoverished were happy because Fidel promised equality for all. There had been a huge inequality between the rich and the poor on the island, and many of the most impoverished were excited for new opportunities. As we all know, Fidel never delivered on his promises. Shortly after the revolution, all US businesses in Cuba were nationalized with no compensation to the prior owners, so the United States broke off all ties with Cuba after the Bay of Pigs. Soon after, Cuba became aligned with the USSR and became a communist nation. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991 the Soviets left Cuba and Cuba was essentially on their own.
Fidel Castro led Cuba from 1959 until 2008 when he became ill. Even though he lived until 2016, his brother Raul took over until his own retirement in 2018. In 2019 Miguel Diaz-Canel was elected President of Cuba, ending six decades of Castro family rule. Cuba is now considered a socialist state and although it’s been isolated from the United States since Fidel’s takeover in 1959, it has gradually gained access to foreign commerce and travel.
This story begins in 1959 a few months after Fidel Castro has overthrown Battista. The Perez family waits at the airport for the plane to take them from their beloved country to America. The Perez family is wealthy, their father is a sugar baron who thrived under the old regime but now they must go because Castro will either exile them or imprison them. The four girls Isabel, Beatriz, Elisa, and Maria are devastated but believe that they will return once Fidel has failed in his mission. No one could have predicted that Fidel would be in power as long as he was, but until he was gone the Perez family could not return.
The novel skips back and forth from the time leading up to the Perez family’s exile to Florida to the modern-day story of Marisol Ferrera one of the Perez granddaughters.
Marisol is the granddaughter of Elisa. Although she is Cuban, she has never been to the country that she grew up hearing about from her grandmother. Marisol was essentially raised by Elisa and the two always believed that they would return to Cuba together. Unfortunately, Elisa dies in 2017, and because the Castros are still in power she is never able to return. Marisol has been tasked with the job of spreading her grandmother’s ashes in Cuba. Her grandmother does not tell Marisol where she wants the ashes scattered so Marisol must figure it out on her own. Because Marisol is a travel writer for a popular travel magazine, she is able to use her job as a way to get into Cuba – she will do a piece on modern-day Cuban tourism while she is there. For her visit, Marisol stays with Ana, her grandmother’s best childhood friend and neighbor.
When she arrives in Havana, Ana is not there to greet her. Instead, her grandson Luis is there and he tells Marisol that he will be her tour guide for the week. Ana’s family lived next door to Elisa’s, and was also wealthy but never left. Castro’s regime took everything from them, but they were able to keep their family home and run a paladar/restaurant in their home to make extra money.
Marisol’s story is about exploring the land that used to be home to her family and finding out about who her grandmother really was. Someone Marisol thought she knew better than anyone.
I think it’s important to know that the author’s own family is Cuban and that they too were forced to leave Cuba after the Revolution. So, Marisol’s story is not far from her own. Her own knowledge and experience makes this story very real. Marisol’s story is a story of discovery. Discovery of the country she had learned to love from her grandmother’s memories, but also of the harsh realities of what life in Cuba is still like in modern-day, and finally the discovery of a woman who was much more rebellious than she ever knew. This novel is a history lesson about Cuba as well as a beautiful love story for a country that once was.
Next Year In Havana
By: Chanel Cleeton
Publication Date: February 6, 2018