When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton: Book Review

I read Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year in Havana in 2018 and absolutely adored it. You can read my review of that book here. Somehow, I never got around to reading the sequel 2019. I rectified that situation in April this year! The author mentions that Next Year in Havana was meant to be a stand-alone story. However, the character of Beatriz Perez came alive in that one and demanded her own story be told as well. Readers should be grateful that Ms. Cleeton obliged.

In 1960s Florida, a young Cuban exile will risk her life—and heart—to take back her country in this exhilarating historical novel from the author of The Last Train to Key West and Next Year in Havana,a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick.

Beautiful. Daring. Deadly.

The Cuban Revolution took everything from sugar heiress Beatriz Perez—her family, her people, her country. Recruited by the CIA to infiltrate Fidel Castro’s inner circle and pulled into the dangerous world of espionage, Beatriz is consumed by her quest for revenge and her desire to reclaim the life she lost.

As the Cold War swells like a hurricane over the shores of the Florida Strait, Beatriz is caught between the clash of Cuban American politics and the perils of a forbidden affair with a powerful man driven by ambitions of his own. When the ever-changing tides of history threaten everything she has fought for, she must make a choice between her past and future—but the wrong move could cost Beatriz everything—not just the island she loves, but also the man who has stolen her heart… (Amazon)

When we left Cuba review

My Review

I love historical fiction. Sometimes, I’m in the mood for something light and easy and other times I want a narrative that uses rich stories of the past and entwines the facts with the types of people and circumstances that could just really have truly existed. As a Latin American History teacher, when I read hist-fic set in any of the countries or time periods I know well, I’m often a bit more intense in my scrutiny of the representations made. I can safely say that this novel ticks all my boxes for well-researched hist-fic and I’d even recommend it to my students as elective reading.

Several key events are well-presented in this story including Cuban exile, JFK’s election and assassination, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the many espionage and counter-espionage tactics implemented on both sides of the ideological divide. Fact and fiction are woven together to tell a very compelling story about all too true events.

The role of women in the 1960s in both Cuba and the United States is explored through Beatriz’s refusal to accept it. Financial independence allows her to pay for her own university education; one her parents could have easily paid for but deemed it unnecessary. She rejects the expectation that she will marry and devote herself to a husband and children, instead leading a very adventurous life. One that helped many people, but one that was lived on her own terms.

The historical details are very well reproduced and worked into the fictional elements. The timelines are clear and the characters chosen to star in the story personify the varied perspectives of those involved in the non-fiction events. Beatriz comes from a wealthy sugar family who tentatively supported the Batista dictatorship. Her mother embodies the purposefully ignorant elite who ignored the reality of their country to their own detriment… and continued to do so even after going into exile.

I almost feel sorry for her. My mother is not the sort of person who understands those who are not like her, does not adjust well to change, cannot reconcile what Cuba has become with her world of parties and shopping. The truth is, she cares not the struggle of the average Cuban, only seeks to protect the private enclave which she inhabits.

Beatriz’s father is the wily businessman who learns to work with all sides to ensure the protection of his livelihood. Beatriz and her brother are the examples of the children of the elite who understood their country would never be free under Batista, Castro or the US sugar market. On the political side, Eduardo plays the spy and Nick represents the idealistic US politicians who believed dialogue could bring an end to the stand-off. Then there is the ever-present CIA, personified in Mr. Dwyer. The CIA whose motives are always murky. Sometimes their actions aligned with Beatriz’s needs and at other times, they were diametrically opposed.

This story cleverly exposes and lashes out at each side and each perspective and highlights how the stereotypes evolved and were perpetuated. There are spies from both sides, young and old. University students who romanticised the revolution because they never lived through it. There is also the deep hunger of a displaced people who want to return home, and who know they will never truly belong in their adopted home.

“…But we are not in Cuba. And though you are, and always will be, a Perez, that does not mean what it once did. Not here. We must do more. Work harder. We must advance ourselves, because if we do not, these people will trample us. They don’t want us here, and they won’t let us forget it.”

One message is abundantly clear, in this historical fiction novel and also in the history texts: The Cuba-US relationship is little more than a tit for tat. Each side committing antagonist acts, and each shamelessly trying to pass the blame off on the other. No side is without fault. No side has acted in the best interest of anyone but themselves. None. In both cases, the beliefs and even whims of egocentric politicians, rebels, businessmen and powerful men who live in the shadows have unfairly affected the lives of millions of civilians. Hopefully one day it will come to a real end.

A major part of this story is Beatriz’s devotion to her country and to her brother. Her brother, Alejandro, is one of the children of the elite who eschewed their comfortable lives to fight for a better Cuba. He was not one to fall in behind Castro, even though his goal was to remove Batista, and he paid the ultimate price for that. Beatriz, therefore, holds Castro to blame for the exile of her family, the imprisonment, torture and death of many and the death of her brother. She recognises that Batista, the United States and Castro are all to blame for Cuba’s strife, but only one of these three could be within her grasp. I love how the author builds up to Beatriz’s first meeting with the revolutionary leader; and I adore how his depiction is not caricaturised but made so human and tangible.

I’ve imagined this meeting for so long… when I would face my brother’s killer… and now he’s here, the villain of my days and nights slouched in a chair, his omnipresent green fatigues wrinkled and grimy, his beard scraggly, a cloud of cigar smoke surrounding him, and the shocking thing isn’t the flash of hate I expected to feel or the wave of grief I imagined would carry me away, but rather the sheer banality of it all.   

In this scene, readers could imagine any one of the countless men and women who tried to gain access to Castro, to be the one who would bring him down. This scene is also evocative of the opening of the story which happens on November 26, 2016, the day of Fidel Castro’s death.

The romance between Nick and Beatriz is gripping and the chemistry between them is obvious from their first interaction through words and actions. Through their relationship, and snappy dialogue, a lot of the contentious issues between Cuba and the United States are brought to the fore.  

There are so many elements that I enjoyed in this story that I suspect I’d have to re-read it to see what I might have missed the first go-around.  Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to do just that in the not so distant future.

I give When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton 5/5 stars.

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I’m a Latin American Studies teacher, teaching Latin American History and Politics and Basic Spanish. I love reading, writing, teaching and travelling. 

2 thoughts on “When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton: Book Review

  1. I gotta give the author kudos for not slanting her story in favor of one country over the other. Sounds like she was very balanced on how she portrayed the politicians in both sides

  2. 😆 Sorry! I posted my comment way too quickly. I also wanted to say that Beatriz sounds like an amazing, strong character. I’ll definitely check this book out.

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