“When We Left Cuba” by Chanel Cleeton is the gripping story of Beatriz Perez, daughter to a sugar baron in Cuba whose family fled when Castro’s army took over the island paradise. Living a grand but reduced lifestyle in Palm Beach, Beatriz’ mother is constantly scheming for her daughters to marry well and restore the family name and fortune.
But Beatriz has other ideas. Her twin brother was killed during the Revolution, and she is determined to get revenge. She hates Castro passionately and abhors the idea that she will follow her mother’s wishes — marry, have children, and never live life fully. She wants to take a different path.
This historical fiction novel is part romance, part political intrigue, part thriller, and completely engrossing. Readers learn about the elite in Palm Beach and their lifestyle, and that the Kennedys were the first to call Palm Beach the “Winter White House.” Beatriz’ romance with a handsome American senator leaves her confused about what she wants out of life, and her spying for the CIA gives her a feeling of fulfillment.
While most of the story takes place in the 1960s, the first pages take place in 2016, right after the death of Castro. There are a few times throughout the story when the reader is brought back to the present and given information that only leads to more questions about what actually happened fifty-five years before. That time shift adds an extra dimension to the story.
With Beatriz, Cleeton creates a female main character who is an anomaly in her time. Even when she is offered what almost every other woman would grab with both hands, Beatriz chooses a different future. A future where she is in control, and a future in which she can make a difference. An independent future. And she becomes a remarkable woman, although the reader doesn’t know exactly how that comes to be. This story is about her beginning and about her not-quite-end. The mystery, the part that is left to the reader’s imagination, is effectively murky.
The romance is beautifully written, and the spy story feel authentic. The reader will experience Bay of Pigs (the failed attempt to oust Castro from Cuba) and wonder who exactly was to blame for the horrible disaster. There is a cautionary tale there as well: Be careful what you wish for. When Beatriz and her brother thought that anything would be better for Cuba than Batista, they never dreamed that the result of the revolution would be Castro. Readers not previously informed about what happened in Cuba’s history will find this an enlightening read as well as an emotional one.
This review was originally published on Bookreporter.com.
Please note: This review is based on the final paperback book provided by the publisher, Berkley, for review purposes.