Friday, May 14, 2021

Chanel Cleeton's The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba follows three bold women during the Cuban War of Independence

Chanel Cleeton’s fourth historical novel explores the nature of freedom on multiple levels, from the dynamics of international politics to the individual dilemmas of three bold women. They all become embroiled, in different ways, in Cuba’s fight for independence. They also find themselves caught between society’s expectations and the images they want to craft for themselves.

Set in the late 19th century, the book’s subject is the lead-up to the Spanish-American War, an event rarely touched upon in historical fiction, especially from the female viewpoint.

As the Cuban people strive to overturn the repressive rule of their Spanish colonizers, Evangelina Cisneros, a young Cuban woman, is thrust into a grim women’s prison in Havana under false political charges. She’s a historical figure, and her plotline aligns with real-life history. The other two protagonists are Grace Harrington, an American newspaper journalist working for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, and Marina Perez, a Cuban farmer’s wife forced to leave her home with her family, travel across the ruined countryside, and endure dire conditions in a reconcentration camp.

It takes a little while to get used to all three viewpoints and the switches among them, but the stories come together in a powerful way.

Competition between Hearst’s paper and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World is cutthroat, and Grace places herself in the thick of it. Operating under the principle that it’s important not just to report on the news, but act on it, the Journal aims to pressure the United States into backing Cuban independence. When Hearst learns about Evangelina languishing in prison, the paper takes her up as a symbol of injustice, declares her the “most beautiful girl in Cuba,” and plans to break her out. Under the guise of a laundress, Marina delivers secret messages for the rebels while worrying desperately about her beloved husband, who’s separated from her and their daughter while fighting for freedom.

I thoroughly enjoyed this multifaceted view of this pivotal historical time: the view of late 19th-century Cuba from the Cuban and American perspectives, the action-intensive plot, and the women’s different but equally touching love stories. Their emotionally grabbing quests for self-determination run alongside that of Cuba in this wide-ranging and page-turning tale.

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba was published by Berkley on May 4th; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

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