Clee­ton’s ‘Next Year in Ha­vana’ fol­lowed by a wor­thy se­quel

The Buffalo News - - GUSTOSUNDAY: BOOKS - By Kam­run Nesa Nesa is a full-time pub­li­cist and a free­lance writer whose work has ap­peared on NPR, USA To­day’s Happy Ever After ro­mance blog, Bus­tle and Hel­loGig­gles.

When We Left Cuba By Chanel Clee­ton Berkley. 368 pp. $16

Chanel Clee­ton’s “Next Year in Ha­vana” got a huge boost when Reese Wither­spoon se­lected it for her book club in 2018, and it was right­fully sin­gled out. The novel bal­anced a les­son in Cuba’s volatile his­tory with an emo­tion­ally af­fect­ing story. Its se­quel “When We Left Cuba” de­liv­ers some of the same – in­clud­ing plenty of heartache – with a very dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive.

The per­spec­tive in “When We Left Cuba” shifts from Elisa Perez to her older sis­ter Beatriz. It’s 1959, and the plucky, re­bel­lious 22-yearold is out­raged her fam­ily was forced to uproot from her beloved Cuba and move to Florida be­cause of Fidel Cas­tro. “It isn’t just pol­i­tics to me. It’s my life. It was my brother’s life. He died fight­ing for a bet­ter fu­ture for Cuba. How­doI­turn­my­backon that?” she ar­gues. As she gets older, she grap­ples with how to fight for her home coun­try while si­mul­ta­ne­ously fig­ur­ing out who she is with­out it.

So she ap­proaches the CIA, as­sum­ing that the agency is des­per­ate to take down Cas­tro, and of­fers her ser­vices as a spy. It’s not long be­fore

she be­comes em­broiled in var­i­ous plots to end Cas­tro’s regime. Un­like her sis­ters, two of whom even­tu­ally marry and lead quiet lives, Beatriz har­nesses her anger to seek ret­ri­bu­tion for her fel­low Cubans, gaining an agency un­com­mon for women dur­ing that time pe­riod. What she doesn’t an­tic­i­pate is falling hard for en­gaged U.S. Sen. Nicholas Pre­ston, who is Amer­i­can roy­alty with po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions that a re­la­tion­ship with Beatriz could jeop­ar­dize.

They are a danger­ous match from the be­gin­ning but launch into an af­fair any­way. Other than be­ing be­trothed to an­other woman (at least ini­tially), Nick couldn’t be a bet­ter match for Beatriz; they’re both pas­sion­ate about pol­i­tics and mak­ing a dif­fer­ence, and he treats her like an equal. And yet, the ro­mance – for all its care­ful con­struc­tion and emo­tional im­pact – is not Clee­ton’s main con­cern.

After all, Beatriz has un­der­stand­able reser­va­tions to­ward com­mit­ment. In Cuba, she was raised to be­lieve that her main goal was to marry well – “our suc­cess tied to the men we catch rather than our own mer­its,” she laments – but now she has the free­dom to re­ject that in­sti­tu­tion and pur­sue a ca­reer, cre­at­ing her own iden­tity.

Her pur­suit of Cas­tro is the true heart of the story, even if the suc­cess of the mis­sion is moot. The jour­ney is what mat­ters: Beatriz’s growth and re­silience in tak­ing on a risky job of such mag­ni­tude, es­pe­cially as a woman dur­ing the 1960s.

“When We Left Cuba” is both a hard-earned love story and a vis­ceral ac­count of his­tory. Clee­ton’s writ­ing pul­sates with pas­sion and in­ti­macy, even as she gives us a panoramic vi­sion of life dur­ing that tu­mul­tuous era. She’s long since es­tab­lished her­self as a re­mark­able writer, but with “When We Left Cuba,” she’s writ­ten with a sub­lime force that keeps us teth­ered to her words.

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