In The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, author Chanel Cleeton shines light on a period in Cuban history many Americans know little to nothing about. Through the eyes of three very different heroines, Cleeton allows us a glimpse into a war-torn Cuba and a New York City poised to take the world by storm. It’s a period in history known as America’s Gilded Age, and while I loved spending time there, my favorite parts of the novel are actually those set in Cuba.
Grace Harrington has always dreamed of being a successful journalist, but in 1896, that’s not the easiest thing for a young, unmarried woman to accomplish. Fortunately for Grace, two of the city’s biggest newspapers are engaged in something of a feud, each desperate to outdo the other, and so when Grace shows up at the office of William Hearst, he makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Hearst is looking for a spy of sorts, someone who can get into the office of his greatest rival and report back on what is being covered. Grace isn’t fully convinced this is a great idea, but it’s her only way to get a foot in the door. Joseph Pulitzer has never shied away from the unconventional and hires Grace right away, obviously unaware of her agreement with Hearst.
Not long after Grace starts working for Pulitzer, the story of Evangelina Cisneros, an eighteen-year-old Cuban woman being unjustly held in a Havana jail is leaked to a member of the press. Suddenly, her plight is all anyone is talking about, and Pulitzer is determined to step in and save her. Of course, his reasons for doing so aren’t the least bit altruistic; he knows a story like Evangelina’s has the power to make his paper one of the biggest in the country, and he’s unwilling to pass up that chance. He plasters Evangelina’s picture on the front page, and from that moment on, she becomes a symbol of Cuban independence, a rallying cry of sorts for Americans who want to make a difference.
Pulitzer drafts Grace to help Evangelina gain her freedom, and with the help of Marina Perez, a courier working covertly in Havana, she does what she can to improve Evangelina’s situation. But when Cuban civilians are forced into (re)concentration camps by the Spanish, things become a lot more dangerous for everyone involved, Evangelina most of all.
The story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Grace, Evangelina, and Marina. Both Grace and Marina’s chapters are well fleshed out, making it easy for the reader to relate to the women, but when the narrative switches to Evangelina’s perspective, things take on a bit of a murkier feel. It’s almost as though Grace and Marina were telling me their stories while Evangelina’s point of view was being filtered through another, blurrier lens. It’s not that she was impossible to relate to, it’s more that I found myself left with questions about her portion of the novel, questions that have led me to do additional research into her life in hopes of satisfying my curiosity.
The novel’s pacing is practically perfect. I was sucked in from the very first page, and I hated to put the book down even for a short time, and Cleeton’s ability to imbue her story with a strong sense of time and place is a testament to her skill as a writer. I love when a book takes me out of my own life and into the lives of its characters, making me feel as though I’m experiencing things right alongside them. Not all authors can do this, so it’s a real treat when it happens in a way that feels as effortless as it does here.
If you’re someone who prefers a bit of romance in your historical fiction, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba won’t disappoint. Romance is far from the central plot of the story, but Cleeton does manage to weave a couple of romantic arcs into the narrative, providing a glimmer of hope in the midst of the darkness of revolution. I loved watching our heroines claim their own happiness even when it felt like the world was collapsing around them.
I wouldn’t say this is my favorite of the author’s works, but I’m glad I read it. It’s a story that needed to be told, and despite the lack of clarity around some of Evangelina’s chapters, it opened my eyes to a part of history my American education didn’t touch.
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