2019 Reading List: Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

A summary of this book in one phrase: a tragic historical romance with an unexpected twist.

Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton, was part of our office book club, and I must say that it exceeded my expectations. It was a story of two women from different generations, who end up going through some surprisingly similar events. Cuban-American, Marisol, wants to fulfill her deceased grandmother’s wish to have her remains scattered in her beloved Havana, Cuba. So now that Marisol is able to travel (somewhat) safely to Cuba, she visits her grandmother’s old family friends, falls in love, and uncovers some hidden family secrets along the way.

The story is told from both perspectives of Marisol, as well as her grandmother Elisa. Switching back and forth between past and present, we get a full picture of Havana, then and now – how so much has changed, and yet, so much hasn’t.

I will lay my ignorance of national and world affairs on the table here and say that I didn’t know much about Cuban history before reading this book. Cleeton did a wonderful job of describing Havana and some historical references, but I felt that I needed a clearer picture in my mind. So after a few chapters, I paused to spend some time researching Havana, looking at pictures of the colorful streets and dated cars, watching YouTubers’ recent vlogs of their travels through the city.

It was amazing to me to learn that Batista held power for so long and was so disliked by many, but when Castro came into power, he was actually worse. The rebels thought that Castro would solve all their problems and be the answer to their prayers, but in reality their country went from bad to worse. Wealthy families like Elisa’s were criticized for their support of Batista and their resistance to change, but I’m not sure I blame them. They were looking out for themselves, trying to do what was best for their families just like everyone else. It just so happened their situation started off better, so they wanted to keep it that way.

The way that Cleeton writes this book is so emotional and heartfelt. She delivers historical accuracy woven between threads of fiction that makes you feel everything the characters are going through. Elisa’s innocence and ignorance of politics, her loyalty to her family and friends, her passion for doing what’s right, even though she is confused about what that might be – it all comes together as this rich story that puts you right in her shoes.

Elisa’s fast and furious love affair with Pablo had me a little critical that it would actually be possible to fall in love with someone that quickly, but their continuing relationship and love letters pull through and I found myself rooting for them, hoping against all odds that they would somehow find their way back to each other each time they were separated. Somehow, they just had to make it work. But even as I hoped for their relationship to succeed, I thought it would be impossible, with Elisa coming from her high political standpoint and Pablo, a revolutionary.

Because I loved this book so much, I won’t go any further and ruin it for you – you’ll have to read for yourself whether their love affair survives or not. And what secrets Marisol discovers when she travels to Havana.

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