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The companion novel to Chanel Cleeton’s 2018 novel Next Year in Havana (read my review of it here) follows Elisa Perez’s older sister, Beatriz, from 1960-1963. Distraught over the death of her beloved twin brother Alejandro, Beatriz blames Cuban dictator Fidel Castro for his murder and seeks to avenge him for it. A well-connected friend, Eduardo Diaz, puts Beatriz in contact with CIA agent Mr. Dwyer, who tasks her with spying on potential communists. Her initial attempts to infiltrate the Communist party by sitting in on the meetings of Marxist college students turn up no leads, but a visit to New York City helps propel her into Castro’s inner circle. Using her natural beauty and penchant for flirtatious behavior to her advantage, Beatriz captures the dictator’s attention, but it isn’t long before she raises suspicion. Between her torrid affair with a prominent senator and frequent midnight rendezvous with Mr. Dwyer and Eduardo to plan Castro’s assassination, Beatriz is quickly brought under scrutiny by her family. Her parents arrange to send her to Madrid in an attempt to curb her seemingly impulsive behavior, only for Mr. Dwyer to divert her to London. In London, Beatriz assumes the role of an unassuming political science student, where she comes face-to-face with one of Castro’s spies. Once again utilizing flirtation, Beatriz is able to wheedle vital secrets out of him, which ultimately land her in her hometown of Havana, Cuba to face Castro head-on. It’s a dramatic, and arguably crazy, plan, but Beatriz is willing to do whatever it takes to enact revenge on Castro for being the catalyst of her brother’s murder.
Riveting, unconventional, and emotionally charged, When We Left Cuba is, like its predecessor, a testament to the strength of women and the tenacity of family bonds. The story picks up where Next Year in Havana left off and ties in nicely with it, but you don’t necessarily need to have read it first (When We Left Cuba is a companion novel, not a sequel). Though When We Left Cuba is mostly fictional, there are many nods to important historical events of the 1960s. Beatriz is a shining example of a strong female character, and she is easy to emphasize with and root for. If you read Next Year in Havana and enjoyed it, if you like history or romance, or if you simply want to read a book about a confident, patriarchy-smashing woman, you’ll love When We Left Cuba.
5 out of 5 stars
“And in that moment, you have a choice–you can either succumb to the deep dark, cast yourself unto the sea, the weight of all you have lost simply too great and impossible to regain. Or you can turn around, putting the past behind you, and look forward. To brighter days, to future, to freedom. To home.”