Review of When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

In 1960s Florida, a young Cuban exile will risk her life—and heart—to take back her country in this exhilarating historical novel from the author of The Last Train to Key West and Next Year in Havana, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick.

Beautiful. Daring. Deadly. 

The Cuban Revolution took everything from sugar heiress Beatriz Perez—her family, her people, her country. Recruited by the CIA to infiltrate Fidel Castro’s inner circle and pulled into the dangerous world of espionage, Beatriz is consumed by her quest for revenge and her desire to reclaim the life she lost.  

As the Cold War swells like a hurricane over the shores of the Florida Strait, Beatriz is caught between the clash of Cuban American politics and the perils of a forbidden affair with a powerful man driven by ambitions of his own. When the ever-changing tides of history threaten everything she has fought for, she must make a choice between her past and future—but the wrong move could cost Beatriz everything—not just the island she loves, but also the man who has stolen her heart…

Beatriz Perez is beautiful.  All the Perez sisters are stunning but Beatriz is exquisite.  Her intense attractiveness is both a blessing and a curse; a tool and a weapon; and she learns to use it well. 

Readers were first introduced to Beatriz in Next Year in Havana, which is her sister, Elisa’s, story. We meet the girl who stands ready to defend her brother, engage with rebels and dance the night away at La Tropicana. We also met Beatriz, the older great-aunt, whose unconditional love is balanced only by the air of mystery that surrounds the remarkably accomplished older woman. When We Left Cuba fills in the gap between the years and tells the extraordinary story of a courageous, defiant woman who society never tamed.

Author, Chanel Cleeton, explained that in writing Elisa’s story, which was meant to be a stand-alone, she discovered Beatriz also had a story that simply had to be told. I’m so glad we got it. 

The role of women is a key theme in this story. That is unsurprising given that Beatriz’s ambitions are very much divergent to the expectations of women of her class and time. 

…our parents consider marriage to be the final goal for us, our success tied to the men we catch rather than our own merits.

This is made abundantly clear when her parents refuse her the opportunity to go to university, seeing it as a waste of money on a daughter who will eventually marry and stay at home. Although her father runs a veritable sugar empire, it is his son-in-law and grandson who he sees as suitable heirs. 

She recognises that there are some benefits to living their exile from Cuba in a country like the United States, yet she is not blinded by the freely spouted words of liberty and equality. She quickly understands that with respect to women, the U.S. is no different to Cuba.

Women in the United States and Cuba alike are still viewed as extensions of other people -fathers, husbands- rather than as our own selves, to be judged on our own merits.

Beatriz will not kow-tow to the expectations of her societal circle, nor even to her parents. She gains a level of financial independence and with it, charts her own course, her own remarkable, adventurous course. She sets out to live a life devoted to a country she may never again see. Her love of country is a driving force for her and as much a part of her personality as her well-honed intellect. She is willing to die for her country. She, like many, have an idea of what true freedom looks like and fervently wants to see her island home live up to its potential. This idealistic part of her is also fuelled by her brother’s rejection of the life he was born into, and his fight for a free Cuba. A goal for which he gave his life. 

“…It isn’t just politics to me. It’s my life. It was my brother’s life. He died fighting for a better future for Cuba. How do I turn my back on that?”

“But what if that dream never comes true? What then? Are you to be a widow to a country that has only ever existed in your dreams?”

The powerful dialogue in this book is another of its many selling points. It is so snappy, realistic, enticing and altogether well-done, throughout the story. In some scenes I felt like I was watching an intense volley between two super pro tennis players. Within just the first few chapters of the narrative, readers are made aware of several major historical facts and perspectives from the prominence of sugar and the reign of the sugar barons to the darkness of Batista’s reign, to the disdain for Castro’s regime and the harsh truth of U.S. involvement in the Caribbean isle and the beginning of the Cuban-American political lobby. 

Several key events are well-presented in this story including Cuban exile, JFK’s election and assassination, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the many espionage and counter-espionage tactics implemented on both sides of the ideological divide. Fact and fiction are woven together to tell a very compelling story about all too true events.

The romance between Nick and Beatriz is so engrossing. The chemistry between these two is evident from their first interaction; and it is impossible not to want to help them find a way to be together. They are soul mates in love with each other in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Their relationship is juxtaposed against the one Beatriz could have with Eduardo, the Cuban revolutionary who grew up with her. Eduardo is like a brother but not. The dark-haired Casanova versus the blonde-haired prince… Golden skin that’s a touch too tan versus the ‘right’ shade of pale. Rebel versus idealistic politician. Yet, both are young and both want better for their countries. They both want Beatriz. One loves her freely and one loves her even when he is not allowed to. 

If the strength of this book is the dialogue, perspectives and historical detail, maybe a weakness is that while Beatriz and all her complex layers are revealed, Nick is never really fully exposed or even Eduardo. They both remain rather single faceted. Nick is the charismatic, idealistic politician. His fictional friendship with JFK helping to paint the picture of his political persona. Eduardo, is the Cuban rebel living in exile but determined to make it back home, one way or another. They never directly oppose each other but they both pull at Beatriz in a different way and neither thinks the other deserves her. Also, while I may have wanted a little more backstory on each of them, the emotions of both are displayed through their interactions with Beatriz. 

I’ve written so much already for this review and could write so much more. Suffice to say, I loved this story. I think it is extremely well-written in the way it exposes and intertwines historical fact, suppositions, opinions and, of course, fictional encounters that may or may not have a real basis in the truth. 

I give When We Left Cuba 5/5 espresso shots. 

6 thoughts on “Review of When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

Add yours

  1. Wonderful review Nina. I downloaded this one from the library earlier this week and can’t wait to get to it now. I read Next Year in Havana and enjoyed it and really wanted to read this one, so I am glad my name finally popped up for the ebook.

    Liked by 1 person

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