Late in 2018, I started hearing quite a bit of talk about Chanel Cleeton’s novel Next Year in Havana. The premise intrigued me, so I added it to my extremely sizable TBR pile, but didn’t actually get around to reading it until February of 2019. I was completely captivated by both the setting and the story, so I was beyond pleased to pick up a review copy of Ms. Cleeton’s latest novel, When We Left Cuba, a companion piece to Next Year in Havana.
The two stories are loosely related. Anna, the heroine of the previous book, is the younger sister of Beatriz, the focus of this one, but it’s not necessary to have read Next Year in Havana before diving into this one. That book does provide the reader with a bit of Beatriz’s back story, but not having that information won’t negatively impact your ability to enjoy this novel.
Beatriz Perez hates that her family was forced to leave Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power. Her father was an extremely successful owner of numerous sugar plantations, so Beatriz and her sisters grew up in the lap of luxury. Taking refuge in Florida is quite different from anything Beatriz has ever known, and she’s not finding it at all easy to adjust to her new life. Her three younger sisters seem to be taking everything in stride, but Beatriz is constantly dreaming of the life and the country she left behind.
It soon becomes apparent that Beatriz and her parents have very different ideas about what her future will look like. Her parents want nothing more than for their eldest daughter to find a good man and settle down, but Beatriz wants something more. She can’t stand the idea of marrying a man she doesn’t love and living the life of a Cuban exile. Instead, she wants to be a part of the revolution that’s being whispered about, the revolution that might make it possible for her to return to Cuba for good.
When Beatriz finally manages to make contact with those in charge of the movement, she is asked to attend several meetings held by a small group of communist sympathizers. This is a far cry from the covert operations she expected to be a part of, but Beatriz supposes she has to start somewhere. Her dedication eventually pays off, and she soon finds herself in unspeakable danger. Suddenly, the ideals that once seemed to make so much sense are being called into question as Beatriz struggles to stay alive in the midst of political unrest.
If you’re looking for a historical romance, When We Left Cuba isn’t the book for you. We are given glimpses into Beatriz’s love life, but romantic love is not the focus of this story. Instead, the author allows us to watch Beatriz come into her own power and realize that she can and will succeed without a man by her side. In many ways, Cuba is the great love of Beatriz’s life, and while this might not suit everyone, I honestly couldn’t imagine the story being told any other way.
Beatriz is a fantastic heroine. She’s a bit reckless and self-centered in the early parts of the novel, but it doesn’t take her long to realize the error of her ways. She goes through a lot in these pages, but she manages to remain true to herself through it all. She is forced to grow and change in some uncomfortable ways, but she’s definitely up to the challenge.
I didn’t know much at all about Cuba in the 1960s before discovering Chanel Cleeton’s work. I learned a bit about it in college history classes, but it never really came to life for me – fortunately the author manages to breathe life into this historical period, giving me a much deeper understanding of the Cuban exile experience.
If you’re looking for historical fiction with a complex yet thoroughly relatable heroine, you can’t go wrong with When We Left Cuba. The story pulled me in from the very first page, and I found myself longing for more when I reached the end. I’m hoping the author decides to tell more stories set in this particular period of history.
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