Fans of Chanel Cleeton’s historical fiction have gotten to know the families in her novels, and with “Our Last Days in Barcelona,” we revisit some of her characters while we meet new ones in a dual narrative that is set in mid-1930s and the early 1960s. In the earlier timeline, Alicia, the mother of the Perez sisters, has fled to Barcelona from Cuba with her young daughter to stay with her parents after finding out about her husband’s infidelity. Yet when that daughter, Isabel, travels to Barcelona in search of her sister Beatriz in 1964, she sees a photo of her mother, herself, and an unknown man at a cafe in Barcelona. Strangely, her mother, when questioned, adamantly insists that they have never been to Barcelona. We also meet Rosa, a Perez cousin, whose own situation mirrors the personal quandaries that both Alicia and Isabel face.
What follows is a tortuous journey by both mother and daughter, three decades apart, to find their place in the world and how they want to live in it. The narratives and the actions of the three women bring up many questions that resonate to this day. Almost a century after Alicia’s escape from Cuba to Barcelona, in search of freedom and a life of her choosing, we see the rights of women being chiseled away by both Supreme Court decisions and state legislation. Will we end up as we were before the 1970s, when a woman wasn’t allowed to even open a bank account without her husband’s permission? Two of the women in the story, Alicia and Isabel, feel beholden to their husbands, who hold the power and the money in the relationship. Beatriz, on the other hand, is independent and answers only to herself.
While the women in the story make quite different decisions about their futures, Cleeton shows us the why behind those decisions. Her tender narration makes clear the warring factions of our (women’s) emotions as we make decisions that will affect social standing, not letting our family down, feelings of helplessness, and our own best interests. There is also the idea that women of a certain class are held to a higher expectation of whom they are “allowed” to marry; conversely, we see young men also being held to that same standard of marrying within their social class.
Cleeton’s narrative becomes brutal and graphic as we witness, through Alicia’s eyes, the bombing of Guernica, Spain, by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War. It’s horrifying, and it’s something that I had not read much about as novels written during that time usually focus on other European cities and the effects of WWII there. It’s elucidating, fascinating, and devastating.
While we witness the decimation of Guernica firsthand in part of the novel, we also see it through Isabel’s eyes decades later as she views Picasso’s painting, “Guernica,” on exhibit. Cleeton’s writing is mostly focused on action and dialogue to move the plot forward. But she also expresses complex thoughts extremely effectively. And the action in both narratives is driven by war and violence, both in Spain and Cuba. She writes about the audacity of creating art and hoping that others will find meaning in it—hope. “Perhaps that’s what (authoritarians) fear the most, the power of speech, the power of art to galvanize the will of the people, the power of some positive creation to counterbalance the destruction they have wrought. To conquer, to destroy, you must subvert and eradicate the will of the people: their joy, their spirit, their hope.”
Book clubs will have a plethora of themes and topics to discuss if they choose this book for study. Feminism, women in history, war, the fight for independence, and our role in society are all ideas that will engender some serious conversations. It’s a lovely read; it’s entertaining, but it’s also very much more.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.