Winter Sisters 2

Dedicated to “girls and women everywhere” – Profiles in courage and compassion for the ages (Albany, New York; March to June 1879): Eight years ago, we came to know Robin Oliveira’s indomitable Mary Sutter, a civil war nurse who lifted our spirits in the face of medical horrors and prejudice against female doctoring. For all Oliveira’s fans (I’m one of them) clamoring for a sequel: Mary is back!

This time she’s waging a different kind of war, perhaps “more sinister than the brutality of artillery.” Fought on several fronts, this war is more intractable and less visible, defying a repressive old guard class system and heinous behaviors.

A war that calls for Mary to return to continue to fight for the rights of women, young and old, from all walks of life. A war that threatens to risk her reputation. Now a physician for the past twelve years, yet still fighting negative attitudes toward women in the profession as she ministers to marginalized women hospitals refuse to treat: prostitutes. This Mary’s primary fight though revolves around two innocent girls unprotected by a horrendously backward legal system.

Winter Sisters is layered and entangled. It also links to the emotional abuse of high-society women married to powerful men who treat them like servants or worse. Wealthy yet impoverished, a “life without agency” anathema to Mary.

A tall order! Though Mary is up to the task, she’s not the only champion. Others are also women, with one shining exception: a charming, young gentlemen. They are the brightness in this tale of darkness.

The novel’s setting and historical timeframe are key to the plotting and richness of the prose. Winter Sisters takes place in Albany over 112 days (you’ll see why that number matters) in 1879. In 1888, Albany and the entire East Coast were dealt a monster blizzard, known as the Great Blizzard or the Great White Hurricane of 1888. Albany received something like 45 inches of snow. Hundreds of people perished, like the parents of the titular two winter sisters.

In the opening sentence, we’re told Emma and Claire O’Donnell have vanished. For six torturous weeks and plenty of suspense no one has seen or heard from the “blizzard girls” as they infamously came to be known. They are presumed dead.

“The mystery of their whereabouts had become a question of sport, debated with passion in every tavern, prayer circle, factory, horsecar, railroad depot, restaurant, brewery, shop, and home.”

The author once called Albany home. It shows. Her regard for it’s fierce weather, stately Victorian architecture, and the impact of the Hudson River and Erie Canal on commerce and livelihoods is richly depicted.

The trade featured in the plot relying on navigable waterways is the lumber business. Gerritt Van der Meer is a lumber baron. His shy wife Viola is the dejected, lonely socialite. Their son, Jakob, twenty-one, is the gentleman of honor mentioned above. Gerritt is a selfish, condescending brute to Viola, whom Jakob is devoted to. A Harvard lawyer who gave in to his overbearing father’s familial demands to help run the business, which comes at great professional and personal sacrifice when he falls smitten with beautiful Elizabeth, Mary’s seventeen-year-old niece, a violin prodigy.

The beauty of music as a soothing, healing antidote to the sordid story (the author doesn’t flinch, again, in describing hard-to-stomach medical details; she was a critical care nurse) involving the two sisters. “Beauty and horror always met side by side.”

Oliveira chose a year after the real historical blizzard to set her third historical novel (I Always Loved You is a gorgeous tale about the passionate artist Mary Cassatt) because of a law on the books she discovered (impressive research her brand) that screamed out for Mary’s mettle. For her “perseverance and courage and dedication.”

That law is key to Emma and Claire’s story, something readers must find out about for themselves. Sorry to be cryptic, but you wouldn’t want me to spoil the mystery. You’ll learn what happens to them soon enough, about a hundred pages in at the end of Book One. Given this is a 400 page novel, Oliveira’s longest, and you have two more parts to go, clearly it’s not a straightforward mystery. The novelist’s imagination doesn’t work that way.

In this atmospheric historical timepiece, she immerses us in a “city of graft,” corrupt not only in its business dealings but in the morality of its conduct regarding girls and women.

Prostitution was big business in those bygone days. One, Darlene, whom Mary tends to at her frowned upon clinic, will tug at your heart for she does good here.

Other do-gooders include some characters reintroduced from My Name is Mary Sutter. Yes, this is a stand-alone novel. Even if you read the author’s award-winning debut, that was years ago. Mary is indelible but, like me, you may need some reminding about the others.

Mary is now forty and married twelve years to William Stipps, the elder civil war surgeon who can’t “breathe” without her. After all Mary went through during that war, we shouldn’t be surprised she’s “silvered.” William is an orthopedic surgeon, which makes sense after all the amputations he and Mary performed on the battlefield.

Also back is Mary’s mother Amelia, a midwife who “can make anyone feel at home,” and briefly Bonnie, Amelia’s close friend – the deceased mother of the blizzard girls. Elizabeth still lives with Mary and her mother for she’s orphaned too, reeling from the “sadness of losing everything she loved.” The “Sutter women bore up at all times,” whereas Elizabeth represents the fragility of an artist painfully unsure of herself. When the girls go missing, she flees with Amelia from Paris where she was studying at the Paris Conservatory of Music.

Deaths from war and childbirth – and now merciless weather – created “convoluted” relationships, people caring for one another as if they were family rather than looser connections and friendships. That’s the situation here. So when ten-year-old Emma and seven-year-old Claire disappear Mary, William, Amelia, and Elizabeth all go searching as if the girls were their own flesh and blood.

One of the joys in this somber story is Mary and William’s marriage. “Neither of them could think of a time together when either of them let each other down.” They don’t let us down either as they fight for justice and equality.

All of Robin Oliveira’s novels stand out for their strong feminist messaging. Winter Sisters feels like crystal-ball timing: the 19th century converging into the Me Too Movement.

Also on display and timely is the wicked “power of money” that “brought loyalty where none was deserved. It bent minds and curated behavior. It solved problems.” Greed, bribery, and betrayal also begets egregious crimes, whether a century ago or unfolding today.

Albany’s weather also wreaks havoc. After the blizzard came, mighty floods – termed freshets – that overwhelm the city, once the snow melts. The Hudson is a river of ice – floes, another meteorological term I hadn’t known. Albany is a city of bells that ring out flood warnings, though it seems nothing could stop the tragedy that ensues.

Tom Brokaw, the veteran journalist, recently predicted the 21st century will be remembered as the century of the woman. Thus, a 19th century novel makes a hard-hitting contribution to a 21st century cause.


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Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China

The remarkable journey of an artist (Shitang, Wenling, Beijing, China to London; 1970s – 2016): Starving is the first word that comes to mind reflecting on the vitality and accomplishments of an artist growing up under the Communist regime of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. For it seems Xiaolu Guo has been starving much of her life. Starved for food, family, freedoms, affection, love, individuality, dignity.

Calling herself a “peasant warrior,” Guo poignantly traces in vignettes of memories her forty years living under abominable conditions. Her perseverance, blossoming, eloquence, and the productivity and diversity of her works is all the more remarkable given the unrelenting cycle of abuse she endured – sexual, physical, emotional, intellectual. A life she says that didn’t even start until she was twenty-one, when she penned her first novel. Even when the memoirist left China for London at thirty, she describes her next ten years as a “cultural orphan.”

“Westerners will never understand the Chinese unless they go through the misery and poverty we did,” says Guo, whose hunger for Western literature and Western films sustained her when “desolation came and swallowed me.”

Named one of the Best Young British Novelists in 2013, Guo is part of what’s called the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, who came after the tragic events at Tiananmen Square in Beijing 1989. Drawn to the angry young artists of her generation who went underground to pursue their art since the State censored or jailed those who did not conform to it’s endorsement of art: propaganda. There can a time, though, when the writer-filmmaker recognized the only route for artistic freedom and creativity was to leave China, the homeland that shaped and traumatized her.

That trauma is what makes her art profoundly essential to her being. Recipient of numerous awards for her novels, films, poetry, short stories, and screenplays – a body of work considered autobiographical, speaking to themes echoing an impoverished, unhappy life marked by “ice-cold loneliness.” The artist recalls “one of the happiest moments in my life” at six, when she met art students who painted out the bleakness into something magical. Other good things you can pinpoint: a couple of breaks that led to her artistic development, though she earned those with feverish dedication amidst fierce competition, and bonding with her biological father, whom she first met at fourteen.

Also stunning is Guo wrote her memoir before the Me Too Movement. The China she writes of – in the seventies, eighties, and nineties – chillingly devalued women. Her parents gave her away (because they had a son? her father was imprisoned in a labor camp?, she’ll never really know) to a couple who lived in a mountain village raising yams and goats. Severely malnourished, they then gave her away to her grandparents who lived in an isolated “typhoon drenched” fishing village, Shitang, surrounded by the East China Sea – “always brown, churning the refuse and rubbish the villagers dumped in it every day.” By age two, she’d been orphaned twice.

Her grandmother, “the most humble person I have ever known,” was subjected to feudal Chinese customs: illiterate, with her feet tightly bound causing her great difficulty walking, her body bent over. Her grandfather was a “bitter, failed fisherman” after his boat was seized under the 1970 Fish Farming Collective, eventually committing suicide. He repeatedly beat her “voiceless” and “nameless” grandmother, who derived strength praying to the Goddess of Mercy, who “bestowed her compassion on all those grief-stricken wives and unlucky daughters.”

Guan Yin, “Goddess of Mercy”
By Haa900 [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

Nine Continents opens with an epilogue as Guo is now forty, having just given birth to a baby girl in London. Motherhood cannot be an easy feat for a woman who first met her biological mother in adolescence, leaving behind her grandmother to attend school in her parents’ compound in Wenling. A mother with a “heart of stone” who ignored and beat her.

Even more disturbing is physical violence on girls and women was apparently the norm in rural China in the seventies. “Where I grew up, every man beats his wife and children.” So too she depicts of the raping of girls. “No wonder Chinese ghost stories know only weeping women looking for justice in the afterlife.”

The author’s benevolent father brightened days when home. A painter for the State yet his artistic soul was tied to the sea, having also grown up in Shitang. People did what they had to do to survive; Guo hungered for more.

Wenling was a different type of village. “This was the China of the early eighties: town and nature, with no real separation of the two.” Rice patties, bamboo trees, residential compounds, and factories (shoes, plastic, silk) all together. “Every adult belonged to a work unit, run by the state.”

Wenling is where filmmaking took root as Guo gathered around a lone television in the compound watching glamorous American and British life. Here is also where she began writing “misty poetry” – “historically free” poems about the “land, the cloud-covered mountains, the foggy sea, ethereal love.”

The memoirist’s father influenced her environmentalism aesthetically and because of the devastating impact of China’s pollution, as he lost his ability to speak due to throat cancer; so many factory workers she knew were also cancer victims. “China has recorded the highest number of deaths due to pollution;” today, the country is working on solutions to this crisis.

Literature offered salvation, comfort, inspiration. Walt Whitman’s “you must travel it [the road] by yourself” was a message that stuck. American and French writers, poets, and film directors are paid tribute throughout.

Around twenty, the author earned one of eleven coveted spots at the Film and Literature Department of the Beijing Film Academy. Dorm life was still regimented like a “military camp” but at long last the author makes a friend, Mengmeng, her roommate, with whom the two open up about their sexual abuse “in the darkness of the girls’ dormitory.” Film school lasted six years, more years of barely sleeping and striving, working intensely by candlelight.

The opportunity to study films didn’t turn out the way the filmmaker hoped for. “In China, creativity meant compromise.” So she applied and won a Chevening scholarship to study documentary filmmaking at Britain’s National Film and Television School in London, where new challenges arose.

Learning English when your native language is visual imagery, coping with the dreary weather, and still very disaffected and terribly lonely, she found London a “hard place to love.” Now writing in English, she “wasn’t sure which was better; being read by thousands in the West but still feeling misunderstood, or being read by very few in a country that understood me perfectly.”

Xiaolu Guo may have felt anonymous for a good deal of her life but when one of her art films was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York “with a full house and then toured hundreds of thousands of international film festivals,” she’d clearly become someone known.

Chinese traditions, sacred writings, superstitions, and folklore appear throughout the telling. The memoir begins with excerpts from one of China’s most beloved pieces of classical literature, Journey to the West. This Taoist and Buddhist legend written in the 16th century introduces each of the five parts of the memoir. While I don’t purport to fully understand the spiritual message, the Monkey King’s struggles seem to foretell Guo’s.

Yet for all the “deadness at the centre of my emotional life,” Xiaolu Guo has written a life-affirming book. A timeless and universal plea cherishing human rights for all.


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Where The Wild Cherries Grow

Chasing a fifty-year-old disappearance from the coast of England to the coast of France (1969/1919): British novelist Laura Madeleine’s historical novel of love and loss in the aftermath of WWI reads like a mystery with one of the most satisfying, pulling-it-all-together, endings I can recall.

Madeleine, a former cake baker-turned-novelist, who debuted with The Confectioner’s Tale, blends her culinary skills into tasty prose, using the complex flavors of food to symbolize a story that’s part sweet, bitter, rich, and earthy. Cooking and eating express emptiness, yearning, comfort, happiness, love, family, community, celebration.

To illustrate how the author reveals the intimacy of a romance, the center of this mysterious tale, through the language of food here’s how she describes a special cake:

“It started sweet, tasting of cream and honey, of walking in the afternoon with the one person you could share the colour of the sky with. It became the fields, a grove in late summer, warm aniseed and olive oil and ripening nuts and days spent harvesting, saving for the winter. Finally, it fell into the warm sting of liquor, like a candle flame flickering far into the night, where no words were needed and time itself dissolved in touch of skin on skin.”

“It was love, and it could not be hidden.”

That’s the appetizing prose you’re in store for. Except, the novel didn’t start out with tenderness and joy. For a long time it’s not an idyllic story despite the idyllic cover, southern France byline conjuring nostalgic loveliness, and a sensual prologue.

In fact, Part I takes place in England – in a grittier London suburb, at a stuffy London solicitor’s office, and in the marshy landscape of Norfolk County known as the Fens or Fenland.

Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk, England
By LittleHow (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If it weren’t for the French tip-off I’d have avoided mentioning it altogether not to spoil one iota of this page-turning mystery:

What happened to a nineteen-year-old young woman named Emeline Vane who disappeared fifty years ago in 1919, a year after WWI ended?

Instead, I’d have limited the telling to Bill Perch, a wet-behind-the ears London solicitor about the same age Emeline vanished. His big break comes when he’s assigned her case. His “first real client” is Emeline’s aunt. He’s to prove Emeline is deceased to sell off the Vane’s abandoned property, entangled in British inheritance laws.

Emeline’s story begins when Bill discovers her diary. It starts a year after she’s lost her two older brothers to the war and six weeks since her mother died, the cause a broken heart as much as anything else. Emeline’s elegant voice is full of sorrow.

We’re not the only ones who hear her grief-stricken voice. Bill hears her “whispering in my ear,” tugging at him for his assignment means abandoning her.

The Great War took an enormous toll on Emeline and her once “filled to the seams” family’s country estate – Hallerton House. Its “proximity to the sea and rail” emphasizes the important role railways played in “knitting the country together.” Really two countries for the English residence and a French seaside village are both at the “end of the line.”

Bill isn’t wealthy like this new generation of Vanes or the old ones before the war, but as we get to know this bumbling, good-natured guy, we see he has something far more valuable than money: instinct and principles. Although he seeks the pride of becoming a respected professional, when he stumbles on Emeline’s diary and hears her sad, longing voice he risks it all to search for her. Thus, going against what his future depends on: the improbable hope he can somehow prove Emeline is still alive so she can claim her legacy. He has nothing to go on but his gut.

Something, actually many things, about Emeline’s ghost touches Bill, whose last name is emblematic of his spirit: perched and ready to fly. He is, after all, coming-of-age in the swinging sixties though not like the hippies he meets along the way. Taken in by the private words of a sensitive child who left “bits of coloured paper or a ribbon” and a “tiny ballerina” for the crows circling her formerly grand home, he sets off for a part of coastal Britain he’s never seen to begin his detective journey.

He finds the stone residence mildewed, decayed, and spooky, yet he also finds he responds to the invigorating “smell of salt and mud,” to the openness of the landscape, so freeing. “I don’t want the life I had before, that there’s something else waiting for me,” Bill suddenly realizes. It’s at this juncture that his search for Emeline becomes Bill’s search for himself too.

As the novel moves back and forth in time and place, we see parallels between Emeline and Bill. At Hallerton, he feels alienated from his city roots, a bit lost and overwhelmed; Emeline in French Catalonia bordering Spain is also far from home, lost and overcome too. Both locales are at the “edge of the world” – one overlooking the North Baltic, the other the Mediterranean, waters “more than blue, it’s the promise of blue, brilliant and glimmering.” Sense of two places is strong.

Cerbère, Pyrénées-Orientales, France
By Jpbazard Jean-Pierre Bazard (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The more Bill reads Emeline’s diary, the more suspenseful the reading becomes because at every turn Bill and the reader have no idea if she’s still alive or not. Nearly everyone thinks she went mad and killed herself back in 1919, maybe threw herself into the sea. No doubt she’d gone mad with grief.

Bill’s path is daunting. He persists for he feels he’s the keeper of Emeline’s secrets. Sharing them, he says, would constitute a “betrayal.” Similarly, unveiling Emeline’s secrets to the reader would betray the reader’s journey. So no spoilers here!

The diary transports Emeline’s soul, and a profound love. We feel the anguish and fullness of her soul and the depth of her desire in metaphorical passages involving food: “We simmer, we roast, we bruise; we squeeze every morsel of flavour from these ingredients, until we have their souls.” And, in another describing a hearty meal: “It is a rich thing, the stomach of the sea, the throat of the mountains, the earth between, bringing them together in an instant of pleasure.”

Stirred throughout are the hauntings of war. “So many things lost and found.” Which circles us back to that powerhouse ending. To long-lost Emeline. Did Bill ever find her?

I recently came across a quote by Henry James, taken from his introduction to the The Aspern Papers. It well-sums up how the reader experiences this poignant novel. As a “palpable imaginable visitable past.”


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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.


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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.


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.


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