Next Year In Havana by Chanel Cleeton
"Free. Democratic." He lifts the cigar to his mouth, inhaling in one deep breath. He exhales a cloud of smoke. "I would like to shout. The freedom to protest when I do not agree with what my government is doing without fear of retribution. The freedom to listen to music without the fear that the regime will accuse me of being too "Western" and throw me in jail. I don't want to spend my days looking over my shoulder, wondering if my neighbor is really a member of the secret police, that one of my students in my classroom isn't there solely for the purpose of spying on me for the government, that I won't accidentally say something that could result in me being thrown in jail or worse. I want to own something of my own, something the government can't take away from me, something that is mine."
I loved this book for so many reasons. The writing is so lush and beautiful that I felt transported on to the streets of Cuba myself -- I could feel the hot wind on my face, smell the delicious aromas coming from Ana's kitchen, hear the traffic in the streets, and see the beautiful old buildings and architecture. Cleeton completely immersed me in her world and I enjoyed every minute of it. The story begins with Marisol who, grieving the loss of her beloved grandmother Elisa, decides to make the journey to Cuba to honor her grandmother's wish and spread her ashes in her homeland. Marisol is a bright, inquisitive writer who grew up listening to her grandmother spin fantastic tales of her life as the daughter of a Cuban sugar baron. Knowing only the romanticized version of her grandmother's life, Marisol is met with the conflicting reality of what life was really like for her grandmother once Marisol's feet hit Cuban soil.
The book alternates between Marisol in the present day and her grandmother and her sisters as they live through the Cuban Revolution. Strong female characters are in abundance throughout this book and I devoured the chapters that were told from Elisa's point of view. I loved that the author wrote all the female protagonists as fiercely independent, resourceful women. Young Elisa falls deeply in love with a passionate, political revolutionary as the fighting between Castro and Batista's men intensifies. Soon she and her family become targets as former supporters of Batista and they are forced to make the agonizing decision of whether or not to stay in the land that they love or to flee in exile as Castro comes to power. As Marisol and Elisa's stories intertwine, Marisol is forced to come to terms with the reality that her grandmother lived and what she herself will risk for the man that she loves.
I did not know much about the Cuban Revolution or the brutality in which the Cuban people were treated. I was not aware that the excessive restrictions placed on the freedom of press, expression and due process are still huge problems that the people of Cuba face today. This book definitely sparked an interest to learn more and seek out other literature about Cuba, it's politics and it's people. Next Year in Havana is about heritage, love, sacrifice and loyalty. It's about deciding what you believe and having the courage to stand for it, no matter the cost. Cleeton's incredible knowledge of the history of this vibrant country was as informative as it was intimate, and I am anxiously waiting for her second book, When We Left Cuba, to be released. Fall in love with the people, the country, and the Perez family in this heartbreakingly beautiful family saga. 4.5 stars.
Many thanks to Berkley Publishing for providing a copy of this gorgeous work in exchange for my honest review. To learn more about the author, click here.