Next Year in Havana is a historical fiction by Chanel Cleeton, and also a romance novel.
The book tells the story of two women, a granddaughter, Marisol, and a grandmother, Elisa, separated by decades. On a trip to Cuba, to say goodbye to her grandmother, Marisol learns about the history of Cuba and her grandmother’s history growing up there. In the course of the trip, Marisol retraces Elisa’s footsteps and discovers family secrets. The story is both moving and informative about the history and culture of Cuba.
The main themes in the book are love, family, identity, and politics.
Marisol Visits Cuba
The book starts in Havana, Cuba, in 1959. The story begins from the perspective of Elisa. To be more precise, it starts at the airport, as the Perez family flees their home to escape Castro. The Perez family was part of the wealthy class, with ties to Batista, and they were in Castro’s sights as he got rid of anyone connected to the old regime.
The Perez family leaving Cuba is a family of 6, the parents and four sisters. They are not allowed to take any of their valuables, only one suitcase each. They’re leaving everything behind, and hope that they will be able to come back to Cuba in a few years.
Next, we meet Marisol, Elisa’s granddaughter. It is 2017, and she is headed to Cuba, smuggling Elisa’s ashes back to honor her wish to be buried there. Having grown up in the community of exiles from Cuba in Miami, Marisol feels Cuban. Landing in Cuba feels like arriving home.
Marisol is visiting under the pretext of being a journalist writing a lifestyle piece as Cuban-American relations have improved. Her ulterior motive is to learn about her family. Luis, the grandson of Ana Rodriguez, Elisa’s childhood friend, picks her up from the airport. She will stay with Ana’s family during her brief stay in Havana.
Luis, Professor, and Rebel
Marisol is attracted to Luis, but she thinks he’s married. She meets his mother and his wife, who are both living in Ana’s house. The family runs a paladar and has divided up the house into apartments where other families live. The paladar gives them access to convertible pesos, the currency used by foreigners. The Cuban peso, which the government uses to pay each person a set amount each month, is worth a fraction of convertible pesos. Their supplemental income lets them live a difficult but mostly comfortable life by Cuban standards.
Luis a professor at the University of Havana, and well-placed to give her a tour of Havana, and teach her Cuban history. During their exploration of Havana, the attraction deepens. It’s a relief to Marisol when she discovers that Luis is divorced. His ex-wife still lives with him and the family for financial reasons and because housing is difficult in Cuba. This frees space for Marisol to respond to the chemistry she feels with Luis, and they start a romance, even though they don’t know how they can be together past Marisol’s visit. Both communication and travel are expensive and difficult between their two countries.
As Marisol gets to know Luis, she realizes that he is a revolutionary. He writes on a blog attacking the regime, and this has caught the attention of the regime. Although he understands the threat to himself and his family, he feels responsible for Cuba and its progress. He feels that he has no choice but to do his part in the struggle of the Cuban people.
Elisa’s Box of Secrets
When Ana gives Marisol the box of treasures that Elisa had buried in the backyard of the Perez home, Marisol discovers a family secret. Elisa loved a revolutionary, Pablo. Marisol found the white rose he gave her on their first date, letters he wrote to Elisa, and a ring that he’d given her, his grandmother’s ring, as a promise. Elisa used to wear the ring when with Pablo, and on a necklace otherwise. Ana had dug up the box from the backyard after the house was taken over by some Russian diplomats, and was keeping it for Marisol as instructed by Elisa. She’d never looked inside the box while storing it. Marisol felt like it was part of her purpose in coming to Cuba, to discover the family secret.
The story goes back and forth in time. We learn about the past through Elisa’s letters to Pablo. There are chapters dedicated to Elisa’s life in Cuba, and parts of the story are revealed to us, even though Marisol may not know the full details from the letters she finds.
We learn how the Perez parents cast Alejandro out of the family because of his political activity. His twin, Beatrix, continued to see him and help with food and money when she could. He was fighting in the revolution to oust Battista, but was also against Castro. Once Castro took over power, he started wiping out his opponents. Alejandro’s body was dropped outside the gate of the Perez house. The family buried him in a private ceremony shortly before they left Cuba.
Another Family Secret
In visiting the Perez’s old nanny, Magda, Marisol learns that Elisa was already pregnant when she left Cuba. The father of the baby, Pablo, had died while fighting with Castro to oust Battista. This brings up all sorts of questions for Marisol about the relationship between her grandparents. She wonders if her grandfather knew that her father wasn’t his biological child. She wonders if Elisa’s sisters knew, how far the secret extended.
Caught by the Regime
When Marisol was leaving for Cuba, her great-aunts gave her advice to be careful. Luis repeats this advice. He knows that the regime watches him, and thinks that Marisol’s visit and her digging into the past may increase the scrutiny.
On their first fancy date out, Luis and Marisol are individually kidnapped. Marisol recognizes her grandfather and he, her, as they sit together in a room. They learn a little about each other, and Marisol finds out the missing part of the puzzle. Pablo had almost died at the battle. His friend, Guillermo, who’d told Elisa about his death thought he had died.
Once, when Battista’s regime arrested Pablo, Elisa got her father to call in favors to get him released. The cost to her was a promise that she would not see Pablo again, one she didn’t keep. Once Pablo recovered from his injury, he found out that Che had imprisoned Elisa’s father. Realizing that the Perez family was a target, he used the influence he had with Che to get Elisa’s father released. He gave him a message for Elisa, to let her know he was safe, he loved her, and he would come for her when he could. Her father never told her. By the time Pablo went looking for Elisa, once he realized she thought he was dead, she was gone.
A Surprise Meeting
When Pablo went to the US on business once, he tracked down the offices of the Perez company. Elisa’s father had enough wealth outside of Cuba to be able to rebuild a successful company. He met with Pablo, and showed him pictures of Elisa with her husband. He told Pablo that they had a child. At that point, Pablo chose to move on with his life in Cuba. He married and had children in Cuba. He continues to work within Castro’s regime. From his perspective, he’s trying to create change from within.
Pablo told Marisol that he would try to use his influence to get Luis out. He asked her to trust him and not do anything, which would only make the situation worse. She was to go to Ana’s and wait. She would go to his home the next day for an update.
The next day, Marisol discovered that Pablo only lived one block away, in a grand home with a magnificent view of the sea. He told her he was working on getting Luis released, and she should wait for an update from him.
Later, Pablo brings Luis to Ana’s home. He’s beaten up and bruised. Pablo has created a small window, making it look like Luis has been accidentally released. He tells them that they need to leave the country and go to Antigua as soon as possible. From Antigua, they can go to the US by chartered plane. Luckily, the Perez company has a plane. Pablo makes it possible for Marisol to call her sister to arrange the escape. Convincing Luis is more difficult.
Ana and Caridad, Luis’s mother, help him decide to leave. He doesn’t want to leave Cuba, to desert his country and people. They, along with Marisol, finally convince him that he can find a way to fight for the Cuban people from outside the country.
Final Resting Place
The night before she leaves Cuba, Marisol, and Pablo release Elisa’s ashes along the Malecon. This was one of Elisa’s favorite places and the location of her first date with Pablo. It seems a fitting goodbye.
Back in the USA
Luis and Marisol make it to Antigua and to the US without problems. The Perez family managed to arrange entry for Luis, and got him an immigration lawyer.
Marisol makes a visit to her aunt Beatriz, the one most likely to know the family secrets. They discuss Luis and Elisa. Marisol discovers that Beatriz knew Elisa’s secret. She tells Beatriz that she will share what she learned about Pablo with her father and sisters and that Pablo wants to meet them if they can make it to Cuba. Beatriz explains that the love between Elisa and her husband was real, even though it may not have begun that way.
The Ending of the Story
As the story ends, Luis and Marisol are having dinner. They have started working on an article together to call for change in Cuba, attempting to get the international community to take some action. When they toast, it is with the words “Next year in Havana”.
The final section is Elisa’s, based in 1970. We see her, Juan, and their son, Miguel, on a beach together. They love each other, and Juan loves Miguel as he would a biological child. Elisa doesn’t feel the same kind of love she had for Pablo, but her love is “steady, true, strong”.
Next Year in Havana ends with a visual of Elisa looking towards Cuba, 90 miles away. She is standing in Key West in a pink dress, imagining that she can see herself in a white dress, strolling along the Malecon with Pablo. She thinks of how she sees Pablo’s eyes in Miguel’s face and imagines that heaven will be like the Malecon. One day, she, Pablo, and Miguel will stroll along there together.
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