Saturday, May 12, 2018

Next Year in Havana

Title:  Next Year in Havana
Author:  Chanel Cleeton
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0399586687 / 978-0399586682

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "'How long will we be gone?' my sister Maria asks."

Favorite Quote:  "... but the older you get, the more you learn to appreciate the moments life gives you. Getting them certainly isn't a given, and I feel blessed to have carved out a life  here where I could be happy even if it wasn't quite the happiness I envisioned, if the things I dreamed of never quite came to pass."

The title of this book is a literal wish. "As exiles, that hope is embedded in the very essence of our soul, taught from birth - 'Next year in Havana' - It's the toast we never stop saying, because the dream of it never comes true."

The tumultuous history of Cuba continues. Over the last couple of months, the world press has focused on the elections that took place in Cuba on March 11. The articles focus not on election issues but rather on the fact that for the first time in decades, the leadership of the Cuba is not in the hands of someone with the name Castro.

This book picks up on this current history and also takes it back to the beginning of the Castro regime. As often in historical fiction, this book follows the story of two individuals in two time periods. In 1959 Havana is nineteen year old Eliza Perez. Her family is Havana aristocracy, but the coming revolution puts their home and their very lives at risk. In 2017 Miami is Marisol Ferrera, the granddaughter of Eliza Perez. The only thing she knows of Cuba is through the stories of her family who left in 1959 and never went home again. Their stories are anchored in the past. "To be in exile is to have the things you love most in the world - the air you breath, the earth you walk upon - taken from you. They exist on the other side of a wall - there and not - unaltered by time and circumstance, preserved in a perfect memory in a land of dreams."

Her grandmother's dying wish brings Marisol to Havana. Her experiences there and her discovery of her grandmother's past cast all the family stories in a different light. The book traverses both time periods, looking at Cuba in both times in history and the challenges and choices that face the Cuban people.

As with books of this structure, the story one time period and one character has a stronger pull. In this case, it is definitely the story of the 1950s, not just Eliza but the entire Perez family. "We are silk and lace, and beneath them we are steel." Their relationships, their impossible choices, and the heartache of having to leave all they know makes for a compelling story.

Marisol's story draws me in less so for a few reasons. First, both time periods involve a love story. Eliza's is intense and integral to her story. Marisol's appears more a distraction and unnecessary. Statement like I "can get through a day with him as long as I focus on the sites before us and not his tanned forearms" and "the scent of his soap - clean and strong - fills my nostrils" seem out of place in what is otherwise a serious and sad tale.

Second, because Marisol is new to the reality of Cuba, those in Havana become her guides, often sounding like a history class. Luis, who becomes Marisol's partner in this journey, is in fact a history professor. The history is necessary, but at the same time, again listening to history is an entirely different experience than watching that history come to life. It reminds me of a basic school writing lesson of "show, don't tell."

Finally, that experience of living in this history is not Marisol's. The story of the past belongs to her grandmother, and the story of the present belongs to Luis and the people she meets in Havana. She sees and tells the story, but in so many ways, it is not her story. However, Eliza's story is very much hers, and it keeps me reading until the final page.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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