“In the end life always comes down to timing.”
Florida, 1960: The Perez family lost everything in the Cuban Revolution. Like many former sugar barons, Emilio Perez and his family had to flee their home, leaving everything behind, when Castro came into power.
Like the rest of her family, Beatriz assumes it will be a brief exile when the family first settles in Florida. As time passes and the weeks turn into months and years, Beatriz watches in dismay as her sisters and even her parents begin to make new lives for themselves in this new country.
Beatriz is much more interested in revenge. When she is recruited by the CIA, Beatriz jumps at the chance to choose a different path for herself trying to get close to Castro and reclaim everything his regime stole from her.
As she learns more about the means the CIA is willing to use to justify their ends and watches the Cold War threaten to warm, Beatriz also has to reconcile how she can let go of everything her family lost while embracing the new opportunities–and maybe even new love–available to her in the United States in When We Left Cuba (2019) by Chanel Cleeton.
When We Left Cuba is a companion to Cleeton’s previous novel Next Year in Havana which tells the stories of Beatriz’s sister Elisa and grand-niece Marisol.
Beatriz narrates this story of heartache and longing primarily set in the 1960s with a framing story set in 2016. How you feel about this book may also depend heavily on how you react to one of Beatriz’s love interests. Without naming any names, I will say I could not stand him and that made a lot of the book a struggle for me.
While Elisa’s story explored the moments leading up to the Cuban revolution, When We Left Cuba is more concerned with the aftermath as Beatriz tries to come to terms with everything her family has lost.
As she rails against the Castro regime, Beatriz is also able to pursue a different life filled with espionage and, later, university studies and law school–things a sugar princess would have never been able to consider in Cuba.
Compared to the tantalizing glimpse readers get of Beatriz in Next Year in Havana, this book is in some ways underwhelming. Beatriz is still working on becoming that capable, independent woman–a transformation that unfortunately mostly happens off the page here.
When We Left Cuba is an excellent return to the Perez family. An empowering story of espionage, romance, and learning how to live on your own terms.
Possible Pairings: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova, Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner, The Secrets We Kept by Laura Prescott, Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan, Dreams of Joy by Lisa See, The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine