My Mom said “You must read this,” and she was right! If this book is any indication of her book picking talents, I’ll be reading more of Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club picks. Thank you, Reese, for not picking depressing, dysfunctional, self-loathing tomes like Oprah!
Cuban sugar magnate’s daughter, Elisa Perez, is a 19-year old, sheltered society beauty, whose world is about to be changed forever by two men: Fidel Castro and Pablo, a lawyer turned revolutionary for Fidel. She is the type girl who can “hear the whisper of [her] dress floating in the breeze ” (p.174). Havana in 1958 is electrically charged with energy. Batista, the dictator who keeps Cuba for the foreigners and his own stable of powerful, wealthy backers, is about to be overthrown. Fidel Castro promises a better life for the ordinary people of Cuba thereby making Elisa’s father a prime target.
“Our father runs his businesses, but our mother runs our home with a jewel-covered fist” (p. 46). [Page numbers are from the Kindle version].
“We [Perez daughters] are the source of our mother’s greatest pride and also the instrument of all her ambitions” (p. 79).
“Love is for the poor. In our world, you marry for status, for wealth, for family” (p. 80)
“Loyalty is a complicated thing–where does family fit on the hierarchy? Above or below country?” (p. 97).
As the three eldest Perez sisters navigate love and coming-of-age at such a fraught time, family loyalty is stretched almost too taunt when brother Alejandro goes against his powerful father. Elisa and her revolutionary risk all to see each other. Their romance is powerful and believable: “In one step, I know power” (p. 97). All the characters in the 1958 story are so alive, so real that I had to remind myself that this is a novel and not a memoir.
The second part of the story is the fairly predictable modern-day granddaughter wanting to know more about grandma Elisa. She has a cliched romance and, naturally, discovers the secrets that drive the story. I LOVED this book, but Marisol’s story was just-too-close to the hackneyed love at first sight trope that I’m finding so tiresome these days. Regardless, this is an excellent book. The 1958 story is just so raw and so real that a merely “good” modern-day storyline pales by comparison. Then, too, I was a political science major in college and studied Fidel–I know how that society works, so the shocks weren’t there for me.
Some Quotes on Cuba and Fidel
“Terrible things rarely happen at once….They’re incremental, so people don’t realize how bad things have gotten until it’s too late” (p. 196).
“The country is not ours; it is merely on loan from Fidel” (p. 202).
“I’m not sure God weighs in on the issue of Cuba’s future–I fear he created this paradise on earth and left us to fend for our selves” (p. 241).
“Some love it [Cuba] so much they can’t leave; others love it so much, they cannot stay” (p. 272).
Some Final Thoughts
So many conversations in this book could have been overheard this morning at Starbucks. No, the author has not put modern-day ideas into her story–her story is being repeated in modern-day. The enclave where the Perez sisters lived is the 1% of any nation. Fidel is Trump or Bernie or [fill in your favorite 2020 candidate]. Fidel started out wanting to rid the nation of a despot. But if power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Many think that’s what has happened since the last U.S. election. Others fear it is what will come in 2020. As a political science student, I learned that elites and poor distribution of land/wealth/capital always lead to unrest. But I also learned that no “share the wealth” program has ever ended in anything but despotic rule.
I am very anxious to read the sequel, When We Left Cuba, which is now available.
Next Year in Havana: A Novel by Chanel Cleeton
For another look at Marisol and Luis’ Cuba see: Havana Real by real-world blogger Yoani Sanchez. My review.
Batistia’s Ideal of Cuba as Playground for the Rich