Xolo Score 2/5
Next Year In Havana follows the parallel love stories of relatives Elisa Perez and Marisol Ferrera in Havana, Cuba. Elisa is one of four daughters to one of the wealthiest sugar barons in Cuba during the late years of Fulgencio Batista’s presidency (1958). While Marisol, Elisa’s granddaughter, is a Cuban American lifestyle writer who’s given the daunting task of fulfilling her grandmother’s last wish of spreading her ashes on the shores of Cuba in 2017. In this time jumping novela, Elisa and Marisol go on a journey of self-discovery set in the backdrop of the long-term reverberating legacy that is Castro’s revolution.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
In this romance novel, Chanel Cleeton centers on the story and experiences of white Cubans during and after Castro’s revolution. Most of the characters are direct descendants of Spanish families, and the Perez family were owners of sugar plantations that African slaves and Chinese immigrants worked on. And it’s because of this familial history, Cleeton’s characters lack in acknowledging their part in the rise of Castro’s revolution. Instead, the Perez patriarch Emilio raises his family to believe that misguided patriotism brought so many to Castro’s side instead of the significant disparities and corruption from the white and wealthy’s control over Cuba’s resources. History shows us that Castro became a dictator who implants an authoritarian society still present to this day. And, unfortunately, Cleeton did not include non-white Cuban characters to offer more nuance to the experience of being Cuban during the book’s timeline.
The most disappointing part about Next Year in Havana is that the novel follows the lives of Elisa and Marisol. Still, both characters are written one-dimensionally. The reader is initially lead to believe that they are both stern and independent women. Yet, throughout the book, they seem to immediately latch on to the beliefs and ideologies of their male love interests. And it’s the characters of Pablo and Luis (Elisa and Marisol’s love interests, respectively) that we experience depth and complexity of thought, emotions, ideology, etc., about the events of the revolution. For instance, although Elisa and Marisol are raised to praise the U.S. for the freedoms it’s offered their family after fleeing Cuba, the story provides some critique of American exceptionalism through Luis’ experience as a Cuban living on the island. He points out that “Americans preach liberty and democracy at home and practice tyranny abroad” and that when Cuba was the playground for the wealthy, many suffered hardship and inequality. And that many are not necessarily jumping at the return of that reality should the Castro regime come to an end one day.
Elisa and Marisol becoming secondary characters to their love interest’s stories speaks to the broader reality of internalized sexism in many Latin American cultures. There is the illusion of a matriarchal society that is limited by deeply rooted machismo.