by Kristen B.
“Next Year in Havana” is apparently a traditional toast for those of Cuban descent living in the US. It’s also the title of a thought-provoking historical novel that takes place in 1959 and the present.
I have to admit … I know almost nothing about Cuban politics and history beyond the obvious. The ongoing, repressive Castro regime brings communism to our back porch, cars are beautifully well-preserved old models, and Miami is home to exiles/immigrants. The revolution happened before I was born, and these are fleeting impressions left from public school and news programs.
Next Year in Havana added some details to that rough sketch. In the first timeline, Elisa Perez is the wealthy, privileged daughter of a sugar “king,” who supports Batista … or at least has every interest in maintaining the status quo. In the present day, her granddaughter Marisol returns to Havana after Elisa’s death to fulfill her final wishes. Beautiful descriptions of the island, the sea-walk, the old city, and the beaches complete this love story Cleeton has written to the country her family left.
As Castro’s forces are lobbing bombs, Elisa sneaks out one night with her older sisters to a party in a working class neighborhood where a friend of a friend of a boyfriend is throwing a get-together. Here she meets Pablo, a university student who is part of the 26th of July movement. Also, Elisa’s brother has been disowned for being part of the rebellion, but he works with a different faction. It all gets complicated, and it all goes wrong.
In the opening scene, the Perez family flees Havana for Coral Gables, Florida, where they rebuild their fortunes. As she and her sisters become the family matriarchs, Elisa essentially raises Marisol. And so we transition to the present, when Marisol makes arrangements to stay with her grandmother’s best friend and old neighbor, Ana, as she returns her grandmother’s ashes to Havana. Ana’s grandson, a professor of history and underground blogger, picks up Marisol from the airport, and their attraction is immediate and electric. Luis becomes her guide to Cuba, both physically and historically. The addition of a Perez scion in his life attracts the wrong sort of attention from the government, for both of them.
Everyone has to make hard choices entangled by expectations, family dynamics, and politics. Money and power have very little grace for young lovers, either 60 years ago or now. While the stories share certain parallels, the women carry these plots each in their own way. The supporting cast of sisters/aunts and extended family makes it all more believable. These characters truly behave like people grounded in their families, cultures, and belief systems.
This book, however, is not really a romance – despite the couples at the heart of both stories. The soft focus packaging is disingenuous marketing and does this excellent historical novel no favors. This book is a sucker punch of how real world choices can have devastating consequences. I enjoyed this book immensely. It may have helped that I read it during a weekend at the beach, with the sounds of the ocean in the background.