About a year ago, I joined a book club at my branch of the Tulsa City-County Libraries. Kelli McDowell, library manager, chooses the books and leads the discussions. I am finding this book club a welcome respite because my responsibilities are to read the books chosen and be prepared for the discussions —and occasionally to bring refreshments.
Over the time I’ve been in Beyond the Book, Ms. McDowell has chosen books I’ve already read, books I would not have chosen on my own, and books I’ve been eager to read. I’ve read all of them regardless of whether I had already read the book—a refresher is always good. The books I would not have chosen have been intriguing and fun to read. Since I choose books for another book club (or two?), I like having someone else choose for this one.
The book for September is Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton. I knew that Reese Witherspoon had chosen it for her book club and had the book on my TBR list, so it is a welcome choice. I looked up information on Chanel Cleeton since I am not familiar with her work.
She has written a number of romance novels and a thriller and now this semi-political novel set in Cuba, Next Year in Havana. As I read about Cleeton, I discovered that she wanted to explore her own heritage since her family had escaped from Cuba in 1960 and landed in Florida. She has listened to her grandparents reminisce about their lives in Cuba, but they are reluctant to talk about some of the deprivation they suffered after Castro took over. Cleeton says her grandfather, similar to people who grew up in the Great Depression, cannot bear to see food wasted because food was in such short supply.
Like many writers, Cleeton gives her readers the Perez family’s story told in two parts: then and now. She also tells the story through two characters, Elise Perez and Marisol Ferrera, Elise’s granddaughter.
Marisol’s parents divorced when she and her sisters were small and their mother moved away, leaving the girls in their father’s care. His mother Elise, the girls’ paternal grandmother, steps in to help her son with his daughters. Elise and Marisol share the closest bond and are much alike. When Elise dies suddenly in her 70s, she leaves instructions for Marisol to take her ashes back to Cuba. In the instructions, she says that Marisol will know where to leave the ashes once she is there.
Thus, Cleeton sets up a mystery for Marisol to solve so that she knows the right place to leave her dear grandmother’s ashes. Marisol is a freelance journalist, so she has a reason to visit Cuba now that restrictions are somewhat relaxed and Americans can visit there. She does not know when she sets off on her journey that she will discover family secrets and a love.
Ostensibly, Marisol is in Cuba to write about tourist spots for a magazine, and she does plan to do that too. She has to smuggle her grandmother’s ashes into Cuba in a cosmetic jar and she hopes the jar won’t be opened during her entrance into Cuba at the airport.
Marisol has made arrangements to stay with Ana Rodriguez, Elise’s neighbor and childhood friend. Ana still lives in her family home next door to the old home where the Perez family lived, now occupied by Russian diplomats.
Luis Rodriguez, Ana’s grandson, picks Marisol up from the airport and takes her to his grandmother’s home where he also lives with his mother and his ex-wife. Luis is a history professor at the University of Havana. Immediately, sparks fly when the two meet, but Marisol is wary. She is in Havana for a few days only and she has much to do.
In Elise’s story, readers learn about the revolution and the factions trying to defeat Batista. Elise and her family live the lives of the very privileged. They are wealthy and feel untouched by dangers around them until all comes crashing down. Their father has supported Batista, so that puts the family in immediate danger when Castro takes over.
The Perez family manages to leave Cuba for the US as if going on vacation. Elise and her three sisters can take only one suitcase each and must leave valuables behind. Elise buries a box containing items precious to her in the backyard and enlists her friend Ana in the middle of the night to witness where the box is buried. Ana later digs that box up and keeps it safe without opening it until she gives it to Marisol.
Elise’s treasures in the box lead Marisol into some danger and Luis is right beside her. Readers also learn that Luis blogs under an assumed name and his blogging could get him into serious trouble with the government. He reminds Marisol that as an American and someone staying with the Rodriguez family she is being watched.
To discover all the political and romantic intrigues, read Next Year in Havana. One of my reading quirks is that I like to discover that the writer has used the title of the book somewhere in the book. The caveat is that it must appear naturally; it can’t be forced or just dropped in inexplicably. Cleeton meets my expectations in that regard. Cubans who fled Cuba after Castro took over, end their toasts with “Next year in Havana.”