Contemporary Literature · Historical Fiction

Next Year in Havana

For December, my long-distance book club chose, as our theme, to read one of the books nominated for (not necessarily a winner of) a 2018 Goodreads Choice Award. We waited until the finalists were announced and then each made our suggestions. This one was mine! Though I have to be fair about how it won. Essentially there were just way too many great options and we couldn’t decide. So, I ended up taking all four of our choices, entering them into a random choice picking thing online, and spinning the proverbial wheel. I realize it may seem like I cheated somehow, since my choice won and I also was behind the wheel spinning…but I videoed the whole thing for transparency!

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

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“Perhaps that’s the double-edged sword to being Cuban – we are both pragmatic realists and consummate dreamers.”

This is a dual storyline novel. One perspective is that of Elisa, a 19-year-old living in Havana with her family (a wealthy sugar family) in the late 1950s, during Castro’s war to push Batista out of power. Although she has been mostly sheltered from the political unrest by virtue of her family’s privilege, all that changes when she meets and falls for a revolutionary. The other is present-day Marisol, who is traveling back to Cuba for the very first time (the very first person in her family to do so, since their exile after Castro’s coup) to honor her grandmother’s last wishes to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth. And while there, Marisol learns some deeply guarded family secrets and finds herself in the midst of a situation uncannily similar to her grandmother’s.

First, and totally unrelated to anything else, I just need everyone to know that I love the name Marisol. Like, so much. It’s gorgeous. Now…back to the book. I really liked the way the dual storylines were used to show the how have both changed and not changed since the revolution. To be honest, this story-telling method sometimes gets overused, but what Cleeton does here is really well executed. She develops two separate storylines with very similar elements that, while happening in different eras, provide the same kind of inner glimpse into a culture over the years. Between them, you know things have changed, for sure, but seeing how the stories play out, it’s clear that they have not changed anywhere near as much as hoped. At the same time, you cannot help but fall in love with these characters that continue to fight for the hope that, one day, the change they truly wish for, and deserve, will come. And Cleeton’s message that it’s possible, despite everything, is clear in the way that the two different stories end. Nothing is perfect, or easy. There is pain and heartbreak and impossible choices, but the possibility of a happy ending is perhaps more possible now than before.  Although some of the plot choices and twists are a bit over-dramatic, and one at least I called from very early on, I cannot say that I didn’t enjoy reading them, or that I was any less emotional about them (yup – I cried a couple times over this book). Those moments are a large part of why this was such an easily “unputdownable til you’ve turned the last page” book.

I have to say that at some points, I was a little frustrated with how…unaware…both Elisa and Marisol were. I mean, I objectively do understand it. Elisa was sheltered (and lived in a different time period, especially for women) and Marisol was raised on romanticized memories. However, I think their lack of knowledge in both their inner thoughts and sometimes insultingly uneducated questions pushed the boundaries of believably (and, a little bit, likability). If I had to guess, the author used them as a vehicle for imparting information about the reality in Cuba then and now on a, presumably largely unaware, reading audience…and I get that. But I think it could still have been done with a little more subtlety, a little less telling and more showing (or, honestly, just less telling…the showing was great). It was just unfortunate that sometimes this delivery did a disservice to the author’s goals. Regardless, this spreading of knowledge about the real Cuba is truly the heart and soul of this novel, as it was meant to be. But I do love how thoroughly she explored the simultaneous feelings of belonging and not-belonging in both women, based on the lives they had led to this point and the ways they were sheltered/privileged/set apart. And I liked that they both wanted to understand, but didn’t give in or lose their own opinions too quickly or thoroughly in the face of their revolutionary men. Again, a great balance in representation of there being no true good of bad, right or wrong, at least in the base ideology of these conflicts, if not in the actions of the supporters.

Overall, there are a number of moments of pure poignancy and insight. I felt that the impossible situations, the unstoppable heartache, the tension between classes and political perspectives, the choices between love of people and love of country were illustrated in such a complete way. The ever-present hope for a better option, for the chance that your country and people can become what/who you know they have the potential to be, and the disappointment when again and again that hope, those ideals, are thwarted or disillusioned – it is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. And Cleeton makes that come alive through her characters lives and the decisions they face. This is definitely a novel of setting and theme-ing. While the characters and plot are solid, they are developed only insofar as they serve to show us the heart of what it means to be Cuban. And to be honest, in this case, I do not necessarily mean that as a bad thing.

You can feel, throughout this novel, the love and awe that Cleeton has for Cuba. It comes through so clearly in her writing, the way she describes it. Each point of view we get is there to demonstrate how all the turmoil has, from both sides, only caused pain for the country. There is no right and wrong political group, only the fact that the land and people have suffered equally at the hands of both. But just like each of our characters, the faith she has in Cuba’s resilience is a thread that binds all sides together…and so the hope for its future remains for them all. What starts as a lighthearted and entertaining story about a young woman looking to say good-bye to her grandmother and learn about where she came from turns into something more intense, more difficult, and infinitely deeper. However, the readability remained.

The bottom line is that this book is that it’s consummately binge-able. It’s one of those books where the story truly starts on the first page and once you get into it, you just can’t put it down. It’s a wonderful mix of drama, intrigue, romance (both doomed and otherwise), history and politics, and a clear homage to a country and a people that are strong and hopeful despite everything they have suffered…to what it means to be Cuban.

 

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