When Reese Witherspoon picked Next Year in Havana as her book club pick a few years ago, she introduced me to Chanel Cleeton, a great and very powerful storyteller. With women taking the lead roles, Cleeton brilliantly interweaves revolution and political intrigue into her gripping novels focusing on the complex, interlinked history between Cuba and America.
The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is Chanel Cleeton’s latest novel which had me captivated from beginning to end. Set in the late 1890s, this historical fiction brings to life the true story of Evangelina Cisneros, a Cuban woman who changed the course of American history. Yet until now, Evangelina’s story has mainly been lost in history.
With Cuba under Spanish rule, many Cuban citizens were desperate for independence. The 19th century was marked by a series of failed rebellions that resulted in the deaths of many Cubans. Eighteen year-old Evangelina was a revolutionary desperate for Cuban independence. After being forced into a life of exile and spurning the sinister advances of a Spanish colonel, Evangelina is sent to Recogidas, the notorious women’s jail in Havana.
This is also a novel that portrays the influential power of the media – something we can all relate to today. Evangelina’s story grabbed the attention of the New York Journal, one of the leading newspapers of the time with a reputation for sensationalism. The Journal dubbed her ‘the Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba’ and played an influential role in her destiny. Subsequently Evangelina’s plight caught the attention of the American public. It also led to war between Spain and the United States.
Chanel Cleeton’s gripping novel is not just Evangelina’s story. To portray the dangerous and influential roles women played in the political struggles, Cleeton created Mariana Perez, a young mother that acts as a courier smuggling messages for the Cuban revolutionaries. Mariana is also an ancestor to Cleeton’s strong willed protagonists from her previous bestselling novels, Next Year in Havana, When We Left Cuba and The Last Train to Key West. In creating Mariana’s character, Cleeton says:
I wanted to pay homage to the immense courage and strength of spirit of the real-life women who fought for Cuban independence and the plight of the reconcentrados.
The reconcentrados were concentration/refugee camps. For me, Mariana’s story is the most poignant and powerful in this novel.
Grace Harrington, also a leading protagonist and representing the role of the newspapers in Evangelina’s story is another fictional character. Intuitive, bold and very likeable, Grace is also a revolutionary. I loved reading her story, and found myself getting really excited by the romantic strand in her story.
I always thoroughly enjoy reading Chanel Cleeton’s novels as I always learn so much. Just like her previous novels in the Perez family series, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is pretty political. I had to Google a few things whilst reading it to help my understanding of the politics and historical events. But I truly love being educated in this powerful, engaging way.
Also like Cleeton’s previous books in this historical series, this novel has in my view a romantic cover. However yet again I find the cover a tad misleading as The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is a powerful political page-turner.
There’s no doubt about it – Chanel Cleeton remains one of my favourite historical novelists. I love her books and I’m not the only one as two of her previous books became New York Times bestsellers. I feel so lucky that I was sent an advance copy of The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba to read. Thank you Stephanie Felty from Berkley Publishing for arranging that in return for my honest review.
Thank you also to Chanel Cleeton for another stunning read that educated me as well as captivating me.
The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba was published in the UK on 6th May 2021.