I have an insatiable appetite for books about Cuba. It doesn’t matter the genre; if it takes place in Cuba or follows the Cuban diaspora, I’ll read it. My family didn’t talk much about Cuba when I was growing up, or when they did, it was always about when they left. I’ve always craved details about the island and reading books by authors like Chanel Cleeton is one way to satisfy that.
Chanel Cleeton’s “Next Year in Havana,” published by Berkley in 2018 felt like a piece of home. It strongly echoed the feeling of being deeply rooted to a place you’ve never been. Since reading that, I’ve read everything Cleeton has published (“When We Left Cuba” and “The Last Train to Key West,” both of which are Cuba-focused) and her 2021 book, “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba” was one of my most anticipated books to read this year.
I started reading this book just as this summer’s protests started mounting throughout Cuba and I couldn’t help but feel the weight of how long Cuba has been fighting.
While most novels written about Cuba these days deal with the Cuban Revolution, “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba” takes us further back, to a Cuba before Fidel and Batista, Cuba under Spanish rule and the War for Independence.
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The book opens in New York in 1896 with aspiring journalist Grace Harrington finding herself at the center of the circulation war between William Randolf Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer as the Cuban War for Independence is building.
In Cuba, the book follows two separate women – revolutionary Evangelina Cisneros (whose story is true), imprisoned in Recogidas for refusing the advances of a Spanish military officer; and Marina Perez, a Havana socialite disgraced by her parents for marrying beneath her, living in a concentration camp in Havana and desperate to be part of the fight for independence.
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The three women’s stories unfold during the final two years of the war, with pressure for US intervention mounting in New York (and selling papers) as conditions for the women in Cuba worsened under Spanish rule. Cisneros’s story captures the attention of the New York press as she becomes the face of the Cuban War and the country demands her rescue.
While the book felt long at times, and I sometimes wondered if all three women were necessary to the plot, their stories come together in a way that is unexpected but satisfying. I started reading this book just as this summer’s protests started mounting throughout Cuba and I couldn’t help but feel the weight of how long Cuba has been fighting. “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba” ends with this quote, “And still, we dream. That we will have a voice in this new country for which we have sacrificed so heavily. That one day we will be free. Viva Cuba Libre.”