A couple of years ago, I picked up Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton. She’s released two more books in this series since then, and has already announced another due next spring, and I knew it was time to finally settle in and give this novel my attention. That this month (from September 15 through October 15) is Latinx heritage month also helped encourage my decision. Luckily, this book was worth the wait.
Next Year in Havana follows two timelines separated by nearly 60 years. In the late 1950s, Elisa Perez is 19 and falling in love for the first time. But Pablo is a revolutionary fighting to overthrow Cuba’s dictator Fulgenico Batista and replace him with Fidel Castro. Elisa’s family is wealthy (having built an empire on sugar), they have close ties to Batista, and there’s no way they would ever let her marry Pablo – who is working class and whose politics conflict with their own. Ultimately, the Perez family will flee to Florida in order to escape probable death and certain despair.
In 2017, Marisol Ferrera’s grandmother – Elisa – has just died, only months before Fidel Castro himself died. Marisol travels to Cuba for the first time in her life, on a mission to spread her grandmother’s ashes. But while she’s in Havana, she discovers that the grandmother who raised her, whom she thought she knew so well, hid major secrets for the last six decades. As Marisol hunts for the truth, she also find love of her own… and danger brought on by Cuba’s government spies.
I’ve generally seen Next Year in Havana marketed as a romance, but I think that’s a very misleading label for this novel. While romance certainly plays into it – and in both timelines – at its core this is more a story of people affected by political unrest. It’s about identity and family and a revolution that replaced one dictator with another.
Next Year in Havana‘s greatest strength is the depth we get on Cuba’s political situation, both in 1958-1959 and in 2017. The characters spend a lot of time talking about Cuba’s different sides, from those who supported Batista to those who helped Fidel Castro to those who opposed both. We see how exiled Cubans and their descendants view their choices to leave and how Cuba is now, versus the views of the Cubans who stayed and choose to remain even now.
Chanel Cleeton offers a variety of perspectives and a wealth of insight. Next Year in Havana is a very thought-provoking book, and it’s surprisingly educational. Sadly, my high school curriculum was primarily focused on the United States, and I learned very little about other parts of the world. Even Cuba, which has had such close ties with the US, didn’t come up much in my education.
Beyond profound discussions of politics, Next Year in Havana also offers amazing descriptions of Cuba. In 2017, Marisol is technically in Cuba on a journalist visa, there to write a travel article for tourists planning a trip to the island. As such, readers get an immersive journey through much of Havana and even more rural parts of Cuba. You really feel like you’re there as you read, bringing the story to life.
Indeed, Chanel Cleeton is a gifted writer. Her descriptions are often intimate and very internal: We get lost in a character’s thoughts, her reactions to and perceptions of things around her, the hopes and fears and worries haunting her. While action certainly takes places – especially later in the book – Next Year in Havana is generally more focused on characters and their dialogues.
However, this novel is not without its drawbacks. As much as I loved the forays into politics and concerns of what the future holds and all the feelings, it caused the pacing to drag a bit. Particularly in the middle, it started to feel too internal, and like there was too much dialogue and too much thinking. It began to feel repetitive, too. This novel would have benefited from tightening that up. It could have lost 10 or 20 pages and been better for it.
While I enjoyed the romantic relationships, I admit, in both cases it felt too fast. Perhaps I don’t believe in love at first sight. Perhaps I didn’t really understand why the characters were drawn to each other. In any case, Marisol’s romance in particular felt too rushed for me to find it fully believable.
Elisa’s romantic relationship took up most of her time, to the detriment of her family feeling very vivid. Sadly, her siblings and parents often felt more like part of the setting than like fully fleshed-out characters. However, Elisa’s sister Beatriz does get a whole book to herself, so perhaps that will be amended in When We Left Cuba.
One final nitpicky thing I can’t help but mention: The phrase “fell from my lips” was used far too often here – sometimes twice on one page. I get it: We all have phrases that we like and don’t realize we use too often. But I hope better editing will limit that phrase in future novels.
Overall, I really enjoyed Next Year in Havana. I found it to be immersive, educational, and truly thought-provoking. It wasn’t perfect, but the pros fully outweigh the cons.
It wasn’t until I started reading this that I realized it’s essentially the first in a series. Chanel Cleeton’s next book, When We Left Cuba, follows Elisa’s sister Beatriz. Her most recent novel, The Last Train to Key West, goes back in time to the Perez sisters’ aunt. And her forthcoming book – The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, due in May 2021 – goes back even farther to another Perez ancestor. I plan to continue the series, so stay tuned for those reviews!
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