Behind Closed Doors 1

A man, a marriage too perfect – BEWARE! (Spring Eaton, twenty miles outside London, present-day): I hadn’t expected to be drawn into Behind Closed Doors, a UK bestseller destined for the movies. I don’t like the thriller genre largely because it’s driven by plot not prose. Two months ago, I discovered a psychologically suspenseful novel with exceptionally good prose, so I’ve been open to reading more. Often disappointed by publishing hype, this psychological thriller’s hype rings true. “Unputdownable” rings so true I must warn you if you read this novel at night you might have trouble sleeping. It’s that psychologically jarring. Also true is the praise that it’s “incredibly well-written,” which brings me to why I’m blogging about it, why I got so caught up in it.

The narrator’s voice – Grace, married 18 months ago to a lawyer who never lost a case and resembles George Clooney – flows so effortlessly it feels as if she’s sitting by your side confiding her worst fears and opening up her good heart to you. Jack Angel – a surname he chose, a sadistic joke! – doesn’t have a heart, even though he’s “superficially charming” and can “strike observers as remarkably normal,” to quote one definition of a psychopath.

So, this isn’t a novel that just grips you at the opening; every page grips you. For you’re trying to figure out if someone could be this deranged and this clever to deceive not only your fiancé but everyone. You will be impressed by the intricate web of plausible deceit Jack – and British debut novelist B. A. Paris – have spun throughout. Which is why the novel scares us. Could this really happen in a marriage that seems so perfect to anyone looking in? Could a man so perfectly handsome, elegant, and gentlemanly be this emotionally sick to do what Jack does to Grace and has planned?

Leaving nothing to chance, he gives nothing away until the perfect woman comes along to execute his long-seated madness. He snaps her up in a matter of months. By the time he unveils enough of himself to her it’s too late, for he’s made sure there’s no escape.

The word perfect is effectively used, repeatedly. Perfect first appears on line 5 of the first chapter, titled “Present.” All chapters take place in the Present or Past, a clean design that has us glued to the deft and twisted machinations Jack frames, continually boxing Grace in.

Jack is the first to pronounce the word “perfect,” a response placed right on page 1 so we’re hooked, clued in something’s definitely not perfect in this household. Grace has accidently knocked into a bottle of champagne in the kitchen while dinner guests are in another room. She’s “hoping he [Jack] won’t have noticed how nervous I am.” Jack does, of course, because as we’ve already established, he doesn’t miss a trick. Why should a loving husband be pleased his newly married wife is anxious?

The dinner guests are two couples: Diane and Adam (he hailing from Jack’s law firm) and Esther and Rufus, new to the neighborhood and the group, emphasizing these are not Grace’s close friends. The dinner scene introduces the second, third, fourth, and fifth time the word perfect appears, with reference to Esther:

“I’m sure she’s been told over and over again that Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all – the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect lie.”

Hmm. By page 2 it’s confirmed: something’s horribly amiss!

The strongest word for the extreme opposite of perfect – nightmare, psychological torture, hell – depicts Grace’s predicament and husband. Worse, Jack is so frighteningly “brilliant” and cruel the only person who knows the marriage is a horrific lie is Grace. She finds that out on her wedding night in Thailand, revealed around page 85. That’s when it hits us Jack is clearly not who he purports himself to be. Grace is not only far from home, she’s far, far away from being “the luckiest person in the world.” Tragically, Jack’s old-fashioned manners and handsomeness wooed her. “He made me feel special, cherished, and best of all, he adored Millie.”

Millie is Grace’s younger sister, born with Down’s syndrome. Her parents didn’t want any children, let alone Millie. So when Grace meets Jack in a park when she’s with Millie and he dances with Millie, Grace falls under his wicked spell. Jack is awfully accepting of Millie, too willing to offer that when Millie turns 18 she can come live with the newlyweds. Jack knows Grace has promised she’ll take care of Millie after she’s finished her mainstream schooling (with a constant caregiver, Janice), which Grace fought hard for so Millie is never institutionalized. Up until now, it’s the reason Grace hasn’t had a serious suitor. Millie will be graduating soon. The clock is ticking.

You can’t help but admire Grace’s deep love and devotion for Millie. She grew up taking care of her. Their bond is beautiful: “I love Millie more than life itself and wouldn’t change her for the world.” It’s one of the few aspects of Grace’s story that’s beautiful.

Another could be their home which appears to be gorgeous until you get behind closed doors. Jack gave the home to Grace as a wedding present. They’d talked about her dream home, but it didn’t include being outfitted with two sets of metal gates, hidden by “high walls around it so nobody can see in.” Set in a fictional village that sounds a lot like a real village that appeals to Grace is a perfect façade. Apparently, Surrey is located in England’s wealthiest county, so Hollywood-type seclusion wouldn’t raise any red flags.

Then again, Jack has made sure there’s no one on the lookout to be suspicious. For starters, Grace’s parents will soon be moving to New Zealand. Perfect. Jack insisted Grace quit her job with the lavish Harrod’s department store. Travel requirements, he reasoned, wouldn’t be good for a fledgling marriage. She’s a fruit buyer, travels to South America. Who gives up an interesting job like that so easily? Grace, because of Millie. Perfect. Jack’s even offered to pay for Millie’s expenses until Millie comes to live with them, so why should Grace work?

Meanwhile, early on Grace allows Jack to take away her cell phone. Quickly, she loses touch with two good friends. She’s so gullible and unsuspecting because Jack is so “meticulous” in setting up that perfect lie. Losing friends, family, job, and communications would unnerve us. Not Grace, at first. She’s so focused on Millie’s welfare she loses track of her own. Maybe that seems implausible but if you’ve spent your entire life putting someone else’s needs above your own the pattern is fixed. As we put ourselves in Grace’s shoes, we see how she got herself into this nightmare, how she is Jack’s perfect wife. 

One thing you’ll love about the developmentally challenged Millie character is that she’s quite perceptive. By page 23, you sense it’s Millie who will give Grace her extraordinary “resolve.”

Can Grace extract herself from this nightmare? Before Millie becomes a victim too? How? This is what keeps us turning pages, perhaps late into the night.

Lorraine

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A Woman Is No Man

Refusing to be silenced (Brooklyn 2008; Palestine to Brooklyn 1990s backstories): Etaf Rum is a brave writer. She says as much in a Dear Reader note in an advanced reader copy and the preface to her debut novel, A Woman is No Man, confiding she was “constantly swallowed by fear” writing it, yet she broke a “culture of silence.” 

She must be brave to create a dark plot about arranged marriages in strict, conservative Arab families that isolates Palestinian women with emotional and physical abuse, risking perpetuating negative stereotypes about Rum’s own immigrant community at a time when hate crimes and anti-immigrant sentiments are sharply on the rise in America and globally. “Surely I’ll only upset people and fuel further discrimination already stereotyped by a single story. It would be the ultimate shame,” Rum says. Yet she dares doing so anyway.

Clearly, something else is afoot. Presumably something the author felt morally compelled to write, saying:

“You’ve never heard this story before. No matter how many books you’ve read, how many tales you know, believe me: no one has ever told you a story like this one.” 

Her compelling novel is set in Brooklyn, where Rum was born and lives, perhaps in the same Bay Ridge multicultural community her characters dwell. Bay Ridge is depicted as close-knit. “It was as if all the Arabs in Brooklyn stood hand in hand, from Bay Ridge all the way up to Atlantic Avenue, and shared everything, from one ear to the next. There were no secrets between them.” So why reveal secrets, whether there’s any truth to them or well-fictionalized we perceive these truths to be real? Rum’s confidences about her fears lead us to believe she is exposing truths meant to stay behind closed doors. Why raise the stakes of dishonoring her culture, in which honor and “reputation is everything”?

Rum’s objective, she says, is to highlight the “strength and resiliency” of Arab women. You may see this in one or more of her four main female characters. On the other hand, you may feel overwhelmed by the weakest one, Isra, so battered by loneliness, despair, identity loss, and relentless physical assault she descends into such “paralyzing shame” she becomes ashamed of even existing. Isra endures over the years, but the cost is a shell of a human being, “an empty heart.” 

Will the novel be seen as an act of betrayal? Or, a contemporary woman’s activism to be the voice for the “voicelessness [that] is the condition of my gender”? Will the reader be inspired by defiant characters, or pained by the obedient ones?

Book clubs have plenty to talk about as the novel raises contentious cultural issues in a multilayered, generational approach. 

Four Palestinian women – the two oldest are immigrants, the two younger born in America – show how past cultural traditions keep repeating (the older generations) while their children resist and defy the limits placed on them simply because they’re female. Whose voice will the reader hear? The older ones who believe “obedience is the only path to love”? The younger ones struggling to find “the courage to stand up for yourself, even if you’re standing alone”?

The older women immigrated to Brooklyn from two cities in the West Bank of Palestine, disputed territory in the Israeli-Palestine Peace process.

Their storylines are outlined below, from oldest to youngest:

1. Fareeda: came to the US from a Palestinian refugee camp. Survived poverty, married off in her teens, mother of three sons and a daughter (see Sarah below.) Her influence intensifies as the plot does. She clings to a narrow view of women restricted to the home, that a daughter’s sole purpose is to cook, clean, serve, and become a mother who will give birth to boys; girls are a disgrace, a burden, a curse – the jinn. Men bear burdens too, financially obligated to support their family. Adam, her eldest, bears the brunt, reflecting immigrants “working like dogs,” which plays out destructively when he goes to Palestine and brings home eighteen-year-old Isra through another arranged-for-marriage. It’s their marriage, their sad, abusive story, that overpowers the others. 

2. Isra: unhappy when we meet her at 17. Forced to leave her homeland, her parents, and her pastoral home overlooking fig and olive trees. Raised by a traditional mother who subscribed to the same beliefs about women as Fareeda; a mother who expressed no love or warmth, also like Fareeda. Isra grabs our hearts, so quiet and submissive all she can do is hope that in the land of the free she’ll find love and freedom. Not so when she keeps giving birth to daughters – four in all. She’s the victim of Adam’s anger, angst, exhaustion. Sometimes he unexpectedly hits her over the slightest thing; other times Isra knows when he’s coming for her. 

3. Sarah: Fareeda’s only daughter. Supposedly married off but no one has heard from her. She befriended Isra when she and Adam came to live under Fareeda’s dark roof, in a depressing basement.

4. Deya: Isra’s oldest daughter, the youngest of the four. It’s her melancholy/distraught/confused/questioning narrator’s voice we hear. Yet it’s Isra’s voice from the past that haunts the novel, haunting Deya too. She misses her mother who died when she was eight. That’s ten years ago by the time she tells us these tangled stories. Told her parents died in a car accident, Deya yearns to know more about Isra so she can remember her beyond recalling how unhappy she seemed. If only Fareeda would tell her something perhaps she wouldn’t feel so abandoned and unloved. Fareeda’s silence turns the novel into a mystery as we become suspicious of what really happened to Isra.

Rum’s prose has a gentle rhythm to it. But Isra’s tale, and the sequestered world of these women, isn’t gentle at all. 

One wonderful exception: books are life-savers for these women (except Fareeda). Books are literally the only source of their happiness, dreams, and sense of love. Through literature they “dreamed of bigger things – of not being forced to confirm to conventions, of adventure, and most of all love.” But reading is a major feat, acquiring books and then having to hide them. 

Deya’s world is insular, yet she fights to change it. She wants to go to college, refuses Fareeda’s constant attempts to marry her off. (Note: while Isra didn’t have any choice about Adam, today’s Deya does, though her life made miserable by Fareeda.) Deya’s story is an uphill battle to challenge stereotypes, aware there are other “Arab families who firmly believe in educating their women.’’ 

Deya is confused though. She’s taught in her Islamic studies class women are meant to be respected. But she (and her female classmates) can’t understand her teacher when he asserts “heaven lies under a mother’s feet.” They can’t even answer his question: What is the role of women in their society today?

Rum’s answer: it’s changing. But in order for women to feel they belong in this country they need to “belong to ourselves first,” otherwise, “it’s hard to belong anywhere.”

It seems fair to say belongingness is complicated to navigate for most immigrants. For these women (except Fareeda), it’s made tougher because they feel unwanted in their own home.

Inclusion, self-determination, and freedom are not just messages for Palestinian-American women, but for women everywhere struggling to be heard.

Lorraine

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Girl Unknown

Is she real or a fake?, and the damage she inflicts (Dublin, Ireland; 2016): I’m not a fan of thrillers except psychologically suspenseful, well-written ones involving family relationships – a sub-genre of thrillers that goes by names like “domestic noir”. So well- conceived and ominous as to the emotional terror perpetrated on a marriage, a family, by an evildoer that you cannot put them down. Girl Unknown fits this description like a glove.

Still, up until now, I hadn’t read any of the Girl books – the craze set off by A Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. The closest I’ve come are the psychological domestic thrillers by B.A. Paris, Behind Closed Doors and The Breakdown. What Girl Unknown and Paris’ thrillers have in common is a two-faced villain so perversely clever you find yourself inhaling the pages, amazed at how much damage can be done by one malevolent person within the sanctity of one’s home. The accumulative effect grips us. You know danger is looming, like a train moving full-speed ahead until it inevitably crashes.

That’s the pace of Girl Unknown. It’s why even if you’ve tired of the girls, I think you will not tire of this one.

The plot strikes at your heart because you can imagine the possibility of the set-up, and wonder what you would do if someone dropped earth-shattering news on your doorstep. Other than this middle-class clan lives in a suburban-like community in biking distance to Ireland’s University College Dublin (UCD), they sound like us, could be us. That’s what makes these domestic stories so terrifying.

David and Caroline are in their forties. They’ve been married seventeen years (together twenty). They have two kids, Holly, 11, and Robbie, 15. David is a history professor at the university. He’s studied and teaches there except for a three-year stint to get his doctorate at Queen’s University in Belfast. Caroline is a stay-at-home mom, having given up her career in advertising to raise her kids.

The novel opens at the start of a new school year when the “buoyant life of first-term energy” feels palpable. All that’s gone by the end of chapter one. (Actually, you sensed something was terribly wrong by the cover image and matching prologue.)

The story is set at an important time for Ireland and a history professor. It’s Dublin’s 100th anniversary of the 1916 Proclamation (which refers to the Easter Rising that led to the Republic of Ireland; Northern Ireland still part of the UK). It’s also a pivotal time for David who is seeking a big promotion, and for Caroline who has decided to re-enter the workplace. Thus, David and Caroline are already experiencing nervousness and self-doubt. As for their children, old enough to be left more on their own but kids are vulnerable. Actually, everyone in this family is vulnerable, but they don’t know that yet, nor the extent to which they are.

We’re introduced to the Connollys as a typical family, balancing responsibilities and activities, which include caregiving for David’s declining mother. Until the day one of David’s students – Zoe Harte, 18, who had “a freshness and a simplicity to her appearance that set her apart and made her seem terribly young” – drops by David’s office and springs, “I think you might be my father,throwing his world off-balance. The set-up, by page 10.

Zoe has a lovely name and David sees something lovely in her but we suspect and then see she’s not a lovely girl. Rather, like an octopus with many arms moving towards its prey, slyly ingratiating herself with David, enabling her many moves, entangling and poisoning this family in too many ways.

Had the marriage not carried it’s own secrets and deceptions Zoe might not have caused as much devastation. Had David not been as “student-focused” perhaps he wouldn’t have felt so protective of her, enabling this unknown into his orbit at the expense of his nuclear family. He has his reasons, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have done things differently. Since David and Caroline feel familiar, you may find yourself taking sides feeling annoyed at David, empathizing with Caroline. You may also feel sorry for young Holly, unsure about teenager Ronnie.

We know the train wreck is coming, but it’s not accelerating on a straightforward track. It twists, sometimes not so unexpectedly, then jerks to a dramatic, unexpected finish. A startling denouement that happens more quickly and perniciously than you might assume.

Published in the UK in 2016 by an Irish writing team when all the girl hoopla kicked off, it’s now being released in the US. I wondered about the writing process when it’s two?

The novel is mostly written from David and Caroline’s perspectives. Did the award-winning male author Paul Perry write David’s part? Did award-winning novelist Karen Gillece craft Caroline’s? (Hence the pen name Karen Perry.) Then I came across an article outlining how the two friends actually work: they take turns writing the different characters and after a couple of chapters switch, so the prose feels seamless and each comes up with their own surprises. This is their sixth collaboration. (Not all their books appear to have been published in the US.)

Dublin is the setting. The authors hail from there, this is the center of David’s life, and where Zoe has apparently landed via Belfast. (I say “apparently” because we question everything she says.) Her stories about her mother Linda ring true for David – twenty-years ago they did have an affair when he was in Belfast – but he doesn’t know what to believe since the news Linda was pregnant came out of left field. Or so he says. Thus setting the tone for the overarching theme of Trust. You don’t know whether Zoe is telling the truth, and can’t be sure about the veracity of family members who are not candid and have their own secrets.

David and Caroline have very different views of Zoe. He sees her as “great” and too freely believes she’s his daughter. Caroline, on the other hand, is instantly suspicious of her “cold eyes” and “feline grin.” Caroline perceives her falsehood, lies, belligerence, whereas David is swept under her alluring spell. The children have different reactions to Zoe too.

As readers we get to see Zoe as an opportunist and a chameleon, formulate our own opinion as to whether she is or is not a long-lost daughter, stepdaughter, stepsister. Despite her manipulations and deceptions, it’s not all clear-cut, adding to the dilemma: What to do about Zoe? What’s clear is she’s a troubled girl, but what if she’s your own flesh and blood?

The more accommodating David becomes the more dug in Caroline gets, though their emotions and behaviors sometimes go up and down. Nonetheless, you sense the ride you’re on is not a roller-coaster. This one goes all downhill.

The upside is a warning, like the jolting whistle on the train. Families are more fragile than you think.

Lorraine

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The Breakdown

Unreliable Narrator? (British village; July – September, present-day): It’s awfully tempting to compare The Breakdown with B. A. Paris’ knock-out debut Behind Closed Doors, reviewed here a year ago. If you’re wondering if her second novel disappoints because her first was too good an act to follow, the answer is unequivocally no. Both are non-stop, suspenseful novels that get-inside-your-head. Both excel at keeping the tension going and going and going.

How does the author achieve a relentless, psychological pace? Writing is such an elusive, subjective art. Wish there was a definitive blueprint. At best, suppositions.

Paris has an impressive knack for creating unreliable characters. In Behind Closed Doors, the narrator’s perpetrator, her husband, was pathologically unreliable, a psychopath who fooled everyone. This time it’s the narrator herself – thirty-three year-old high school teacher Cass – who is unreliable. We suspect her reliability more than you would otherwise by establishing that her mother had early-onset dementia by forty-four. (Before marrying Matthew a year ago, Cass spent three stressful years caring for her Mom, now deceased.) The author takes this fact further by making sure her protagonist tells us at every twist and turn that she doubts her trustworthiness, fears she may have inherited the disease as she’s been forgetful lately, worried she’s losing her memory, an early symptom. A perfect set-up for us to question who and what to believe is going on.

The second set-up is mirrored in Paris’ first novel. The author orchestrates an opening scene in which the reader senses something ominous is at play. In Behind Closed Doors this happened at a dinner party. In The Breakdown, a thunderstorm is brewing as Cass bids goodbye to colleagues as their summer break kicks-off. The weather worsens. By page three, its palpable her Mini car is no match for the conditions. Matthew called to warn her to stay clear of the short-cut home. Cass intended to heed her husband’s advice, but in the blink of an eye made the kind of decision any driver might have given heavy traffic and no let-up in the wicked downpour. A decision that changes her life.

“Although this road is beautiful by day – it cuts through bluebell woods – its hidden dips and bends will make it treacherous on a night like this. A knot of anxiety balls in my stomach at the thought of the journey ahead. But the house is only fifteen minutes away. If I keep my nerve, and not do anything rash, I’ll soon be home. Still, I put my foot down a little.”

Language is a third element in the author’s highly-effective style. Prose that, like the merciless weather, doesn’t let up. It flows on and on conversationally, naturally, realistically, so Cass feels very familiar to us. She could easily be a friend, a sister, a neighbor, and we’d be someone she’s very comfortable confiding her innermost guilt, worries, and fears, which intensify at a quick pace. Increasingly, Cass finds herself telling little white lies to Matthew and others, worried they’ll also think she’s confused, exhibiting more and more symptoms of dementia. This leads her to isolate herself more and more, dig herself deeper into this mental abyss. In a matter of weeks, she’s spiraled rapidly downhill, terrified of the terror she’s experiencing. At every step of the way, she’s not sure if it’s internal or external, imaginary or real. That’s because Paris has laid the groundwork, by page four, with an incident that ignites her duress.

Let’s turn back onto that haunting road. If it weren’t for the inside jacket cover, you’d be pretty sure Cass’ vehicle was headed for disaster. You wouldn’t be totally off-base as there is a problem with a car – someone else’s. Broken down, pulled over to the side of the road. Cass thinks instinctively, as we might. Should she slow down, see if she can help, or drive by not to risk her own safety?

We like Cass from the beginning for she tries to be a Samaritan, stops beside the car to see if there’s something she can do. What she sees is a woman gazing at her through the dark, wet window, so she can’t make out her face. Since the motorist shows no sign of needing assistance, Cass assumes, as we would, she’s waiting for road assistance to arrive and thus drives home. The next day, Cass learns the woman in the car was found murdered. Who wouldn’t feel guilty? Think we might have saved a life.

On second thought, Cass realizes she too could have been killed. A killer is on the loose. Since she lives not far from the wooded murder site in a charming cottage that’s also isolated, her mind starts working overtime, which ours might do too. But the truth is we’re not like Cass. We wouldn’t let our wariness completely overcome us, paralyze us, because we’re not petrified we’re deteriorating mentally.

What’s the chance that Cass actually knows the murdered woman, named Jane? The two recently met at her best-friend-like-a-sister, Rachel’s workplace. Jane and Cass clicked, even made a plan to get together soon. Of course, the guilt magnifies.

There are indications something is terribly amiss. A series of things – forgetting appointments, promises, conversations, her pocketbook, where her car is parked. Paris ups the ante as these little things get bigger, more alarming, like seeing a knife laying out in her kitchen that could be the one the killer used, returning to it once the police arrive and its gone. Is it hers? Did she forget to put it away? Hallucinate it? Added to all that turmoil is the constant barrage of silent calls she’s now receiving, a “chilling silence.” Matthew tries to calm her down, says the calls are merely solicitors. But Cass senses breathlessness at the other end. Could it be the killer, who saw her car at the scene of the crime?  Is someone stalking her? Or, is her mental state doing the tormenting?

We’re riveted to the pages, on the lookout for clues, aware how the author so cleverly planted a web of seeds in Behind Closed Doors.  Is someone watching her? Or, does poor Cass need some watching? A toxic, brilliant stew.

The title tantalizes too. Does it refer to Jane’s tragic breakdown? Our narrator’s nervous breakdown? Exacerbated by lots of coincidences and having too much idle time alone over a summer break?

You may think you’ve figured this thriller out around page 200. But Paris is smarter than us.

Lorraine

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Next Year in Havana

Cuban profiles in courage, sacrifice, and hope (Havana, alternating between 1958-1959 and 2017): Next Year in Havana is a novel consumed with politics, romance, and familial devotion. Love of country and family is pitted against impassioned love in a country with a long history of loss of freedoms. It arrives at a time when Americans love for country – standing up for democracy – is sorely being tested. The novel humanizes brave men risking their lives for their homeland and the strong women who fell in love with them at great peril and sacrifice. “To be a woman in Cuba is to suffer.”

No one warned me love would hurt so much,” says nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez, voice of Cuba’s complicated political past. Yet the “only thing worth trusting” is love, concludes her granddaughter Marisol, the other female narrator, hers the voice of Cuba’s complicated political present. Past and present, “the story of Cuba is struggles and strife.”

A sentiment echoed by President Obama when he announced the re-opening of American relations with Cuba after fifty years: “I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans.”

Those fifty-some years span American-Cuban author Chanel Cleeton’s stirring, partly biographical novel opening the year Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship was collapsing and Fidel Castro’s taking over.

Against the backdrop of Americans now traveling to Cuba, concerns about Trump rolling back historic progress, and the hot-button issue of immigration looming before us, could there be a more importune time for Next Year in Havana? The reason it caught my attention.

The author’s father and grandparents escaped communist Cuba in 1967. They, like Elisa’s fictional family, hoped to return to the country they loved, believing Castro would be toppled. Hope, ojalá, is also Cuba’s story. Of course that didn’t happen, so they forged a good life in Southern Florida like so many exiles did, keeping their culture, ancestry, and stories alive – the inspiration for this passionate novel pulsating with urgency and tension.

A brief history of America and Cuba

Elisa’s and Marisol’s heart-grabbing stories are mostly set in Havana, ”a beautiful city shrouded in sadness.” Likewise, the novel calls out to us in beautiful, evocative, soul-searching prose.

“We are silk and lace, and beneath them we are steel,” says Elisa, one of four sisters dubbed the “sugar queens,” referring to her family’s sugar empire – the industry Cuba’s economy was built on. When Fidel assumed power the family was in great jeopardy as their wealth was the antithesis of Communist doctrine. “For better, worse, or the truly horrific, sugar has molded Cuba’s fortunes.”

“Cuban society is not a quiet society,” and this is not a quiet novel. It’s a novel of heart and heartache. Cleeton tells us “this book holds a piece of my heart.” Which is why it revolves around Elisa’s and Marisol’s stories. Cleeton was very attached to her Cuban grandmother; Cleeton, I think, imagines some of herself in Marisol.

When we meet Elisa, she’s a demure high-society young women, respectful of her family’s position in Cuban society yet restless in her cloistered world. Her father Emilio is well-connected in politics having been instrumental in drafting Batista’s 1940 Constitution, which was supposed to bring democracy to the island. The fact that he’s well-known and well-watched by the new dictator poses even more danger when Elisa unexpectedly falls deeply in love with an intense older man, Pablo, who turns out to be a revolutionary, an associate of Che Guevara.

Danger is the tone of the novel, opening with the Perez family fleeing the country. Then we learn Elisa was essentially the mother who raised Marisol. The rest is told in backstories opening with Marisol’s chapter telling us Elisa has died and bequeathed Marisol to scatter her ashes in Cuba, much like the author’s grandmother asked her family to do. They’ve yet to do so, revealed in a Dear Reader letter. In Marisol’s opening chapter we learn why: burying an exile in Cuba is not an easy proposition. Thus, we meet thirty-ish Marisol also taking risks starting with the smuggling of her grandmother’s ashes into Cuba, a “mythical entity” up until now – the plot that drives the novel.

Traveling on a journalist’s visa (Marisol writes for a travel magazine), she’s met by captivating Luis Rodriquez, son of Elisa’s best friend, Ana. From the moment he picked her up in one of Cuba’s splendidly maintained vintage cars, a source of enormous pride, sexual tension permeates and does not wane.

Next Year in Havana is Cleeton’s marvelous coming-out in the historical fiction genre, having penned a series of contemporary romances, ten novels in all. (A delicious, seductive line: “I have a feeling there will never be enough moments with you,” Luis tells Marisol.) The novel also draws on the author’s degrees in global politics, international relations, and law, which, without giving away spoilers, surely help to tell tales of intolerable injustices with authenticity.

In the character of Luis Rodriguez, Cleeton has created a clever vehicle for the natural rolling out of the details of Cuba’s political history. He’s a history professor at the University of Havana (which Castro later closed for fear of spreading student activism). Also close to his grandmother, Ana, Luis graciously agrees to be Marisol’s tour guide, setting in motion a relationship that in many ways parallels her grandmother’s.

Ana and her family stayed behind in Cuba, raising thoughtful, deeply emotional questions about how Cubans feel towards those who left and those who stayed.

The two friends lived next door to each other in an exclusive neighborhood by the sea, Miramar, isolated from the oppression ordinary Cubans endured every day. (You can almost feel their hunger through an austere food rationing program. “Cubans do lines better than anyone.”) The Perez sisters maintained the lifestyles of socialites. “My mother has no time for revolutions; they wreak havoc with her balls and teas,” says Elisa, until the revolution comes to her doorstep.

What tourists see, hear, and taste – glamorous and romanticized – is dramatically different than the rest of Havana. The music video below featuring one of the “musical icons” Elisa and Marisol were raised on – the Buena Vista Social Club – gives you a sense of that colorful flavor and scenery.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=embed/tGbRZ73NvlY

The novel is filled with Cuban politics. “No one can afford the luxury of not being political in Cuba.” “How can you dismiss something [politics] that is so fundamental to the integrity of who we are as a people, as a country?” Luis asks Marisol. He’s a serious, intense man, like Pablo.

The romantic tensions in Elisa’s and Marisol’s alternating stories build and converge – one under the Batista/Fidel regime, the other under today’s Communist dictator, Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

“I know a thing about Cuban pride,” Marisol declares ambivalently because the Cuba she finds is not as beautiful as the stories Elisa nourished her on. “I didn’t realize how much people still suffered.” In spite of it all, Cubans are pictured as people who adapt and “make their own fun.”

It’s that Cuban spirit, “passion, honor, and conviction,” that drew Elisa to Pablo, Marisol to Luis. They (and others) carry messages of courage, sacrifice, and hope.

Lorraine

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