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-year-old 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. How do I turn my back on 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. Senator 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.