Desert Isle Keeper
Next Year in Havana
This island will break your heart if you let it.
Home, exile, family and above all, hope. These themes all figure prominently in Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton’s beautiful novel of love and Cuba. We see the love stories of a grandmother and her granddaughter playing out in Havana, but we also see these characters grappling with their deep love for an imperfect country. There’s a lot of nostalgia to be found in this novel, but there’s also hope amidst an acceptance of reality. In the end, these threads all come together to make a beautiful, bittersweet story.
As the book opens, Elisa Perez and her sisters are preparing to leave Cuba with their family. It is 1959, and none of them realizes the length of the exile that lies ahead. From this prologue, we shift to the current decade and encounter Elisa’s granddaughter Marisol Ferrera, a journalist preparing to visit Cuba as travel restrictions have been relaxed. Not only does Marisol intend to go to Cuba to write, but she also carries the ashes of her recently deceased grandmother and has been charged with finding the right place to scatter them. While in Cuba, Marisol will be staying with her grandmother’s childhood best friend and Marisol hopes that as she explores Havana, the right resting spot will present itself.
Once Marisol arrives in Cuba, the story switches back and forth between her and Elisa. We see Marisol coming face to face with the realities of a country she had previously known only through the pleasantly hazy lens of old family memories. Living with Elisa’s dear friend, she sees the reality of housing shortages, poverty, and restrictions on freedom intermingled with the vibrant culture and pride of heritage handed down to her by her family in Florida.
On Elisa’s side of things, readers venture back to Cuba in the 1950s. Through her eyes, we see her privileged life as the sheltered daughter of a wealthy man favored by Batista. When she sneaks out to a party with her sisters and meets Pablo Garcia, her life changes. Not only does Elisa fall in love, but as she slips out of her home to see Pablo, her eyes are opened to how others in Cuba live and she gets a glimpse into the building revolution.
As Marisol learns for the first time when she reads the papers Elisa left behind in Cuba, the man Elisa fell in love with was a rebel. Given her family’s position in Cuban society, this would obviously not be an acceptable match for her. Those who know their history can guess at some of the obstacles these star-crossed lovers face, but even with a sense of inevitability hanging over their story, the romance is compelling to read.
As Elisa’s story unfolds, readers also follow Marisol as she attempts to learn more about her grandmother’s life in Cuba and her mysterious love. And naturally, Marisol ends up finding a love of her own as well. As with Elisa, Marisol’s choice is neither an easy nor a safe one. The man drawing her interest is not just a good man; he is also a university professor who writes things that don’t entirely follow the government’s rules. Marisol’s story feels authentic and I found myself rooting for her both in her romantic life and in her quest to learn more about her grandmother’s life and her roots.
Throughout both storylines, Cuba’s history looms large. At times, the explanations of culture and events interfere a bit with the flow of the story but most of the time the author’s pacing works and the attention to detail enhances rather than distracts. This is true largely because Marisol and Elisa don’t have the only love stories in the book. Love of Cuba is a theme that runs throughout the entire novel and the author renders it in a way that makes it as compelling to the reader as the other romantic plotlines. Though it does take a few chapters to really get going, Next Year in Havana is achingly beautiful and a novel I highly recommend.