For me, the worst kinds of books are those that disappoint.
Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton promised an intriguing glimpse into the mystery of Havana, that forbidden place that’s been sequestered by corrupt government and untouched by big brand corporate America, indeed isolated in what would seem to be an alternate time. Cleeton endeavors to juxtapose the social and political tensions during the Batista era and the 1959 revolution with the everyday struggles facing present-day Cubans. She positions her main character, Marisol in such a way as to hold up a mirror to Americans and Cuban-Americans alike to show our privilege in living here, as well as our impact on Cuban life. Marisol is a Cuban-American writer whose wealthy family escaped to Miami just after the rise of Fidel. Upon the death of her grandmother, Elisa, Marisol is charged with smuggling her ashes back into Cuba, as her dying wish is to be scattered in the land she loved.
The story unfolds in an alternating narrative between Elisa’s young adulthood in 1959 Cuba, and Marisol’s first visit to the land of her childhood fantasies. Elisa and her sisters are considered the ‘sugarcane princesses’ due to their family’s wealth in the sugar industry, and their days are filled with parties, shopping, and fancy dinners. There are no surprises in this novel, except to Marisol, who did not expect to uncover a secret love affair between Elisa and a revolutionary named Pablo. Unsurprisingly, Cleeton attempts to draw parallel plots, thus Marisol also falls in love with a revolutionary – Luis.
Unfortunately, the fragments of good writing are so sparse, so few and far between, that this work hardly has legs to stand on. Using the present tense may have been the wrong choice for a debut author who hasn’t yet figured out how to engage her readers with captivating descriptions that merge atmosphere, action, and dialog. To entice her audience and hold our attentions, Cleeton needed to approach her characters’ worlds with a wider view, which a past tense narration could have achieved. Both Luis and Pablo are characters created for the sole purpose of relaying Cuba’s history, the former being a history professor and the latter a lawyer. Ultimately, this device led to pages upon pages of pedantic, repetitive dialog stalling the action, and leading Cleeton to fall into that show don’t tell writing trap. Thus, Cleeton struggles to bring tension into her narrative, and instead the moments that should be stifled with urgency fall flat, such as when Elisa and her family flee Cuba or when Luis is captured and tortured by the government. In short, Cleeton shouldn’t have to tell us that Marisol is “filled with excitement,” but rather Marisol’s feelings should be evident by the words she chooses to describe her environment, and by the specific things she notices, thinks, and speaks.
In both plot and dialog, Next Year in Havana is riddled with clichés and awkward sentences. Cleeton’s descriptive limitations are apparent from page one, where she describes Beatriz, Elisa’s sister and Cleeton’s most overdone character: “it’s as though the entire airport holds its collective breath. She’s the beauty in the family and she knows it.” Even as Marisol comments on her anticipation of the journey that lies ahead, Cleeton describes it as “venturing into murky waters and uncharted territory,” a description we’ve all read before. She focuses so much on the mundane, feeling the need to account for every detail including the X-ray machines at the airport and Marisol pulling her sunglasses out of her purse, all while glossing over and merely summarizing the most interesting parts of the story. For instance, what was Marisol’s reaction to her grandmother’s last request? As readers, we want to see this unfold step-by-step and feel the character’s emotions with her.
There are particular moments where you can tell Cleeton is a debut author by her inability to streamline her thoughts: “His initials are embroidered on the corner of the handkerchief [. . .] and I have no doubt his grandmother painstakingly embroidered his initials.” Then there are those moments when you can tell Cleeton has used a thesaurus to vary her word choice, for instance, using ‘novel’ instead of ‘new’: “I have the novel experience of seeing true shock on my father’s face.” She also draws a poorly-planned metaphor between Luis’ family home and animal experimentation as Marisol remarks, “The contrast between the vivisected home he shares with his wife, mother, and grandmother, and the tourists’ domain is stark.” Cleeton also tries a little too hard to incorporate the classics: “If helplessness is my Scylla, then the solution is most definitely Charybdis.” Some character’s thoughts are even written to remind readers that we are reading, rather than letting us fully immerse ourselves in the characters’ thoughts by actually using ellipses: “that sounds . . . Romantic.” Further, the sole purpose of the last chapter, which feels out of place and completely inappropriate, is to introduce Cleeton’s second novel, which sounds doubly melodramatic.
All in all, as a writer Cleeton should have been able to entice us with Elisa’s seemingly magical life and make us sympathize with her innocence and vulnerability – she’s trapped in a world that she doesn’t necessarily agree with, but still guiltily enjoys it. We don’t feel that as readers though, it’s really difficult to sympathize with her and we don’t really understand why Pablo loves her other than the fact that she’s beautiful. Similarly, we don’t know why Luis takes a fancy with Marisol, he is appalled when learning she thought he was still married when he held her hand, so would he really fall in love with someone willing to advance on a married man? We should have been allowed to feel Marisol’s complex emotions, the pain mixed with wonder, lift up off the page simultaneously. We should have been let into Marisol’s true feelings about meeting her biological grandfather, whom she feels comfortable naming as such from the moment she sees him.
It’s clear the publisher intended to capitalize on Cuba as a trend and rushed the publication of Cleeton’s work, and though this historical drama is intended to appeal to a commercial audience, being commercial and well written are not mutually exclusive outcomes. We need look no further than Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale for proof of that. Next Year in Havana had great potential to be a beautiful debut, but, instead, it remains a mere draft and leaves its readers unsatisfied.