The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton
May 4, 2021, by Berkley
Review by Melanie
Let me preface this review by stating that I know very little about Cuban politics and history. It’s not a subject that’s focused on in the American public school system and I am also not a history scholar so my knowledge on this topic is greatly limited. However, I am a big fan of Chanel Cleeton, read her consistently when she was writing contemporary romance and when she made the transition to historical fiction, I, too, took the plunge with her.
This book has 3 main protagonists and while each of them lead wildly different lives, their stories all intersect at pivotal moments in their respective lives. It’s also worth mentioning that the events in this book are lifted straight out of history and one of the main protagonists existed in real life. Since the book jumps back and forth between each of the women’s POV, I thought it would be best to break the review down by each of the main protagonists:
Evangelina Cisneros, aka “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba” as she was labeled by the American Press, existed in real life. Her story is really what kicks off the book. At the beginning of the book, she’s a mere 18 years old, a Cuban revolutionary exiled to the Isle of Pines with her imprisoned father. A simple Wikipedia search will confirm that she existed and the events laid out in this book are pretty faithful to the actual events that occurred in her storied life. (I would also urge readers to read the author’s note at the back of the book which lays out in great detail the research that was done to uncover the details of this story). She was attacked late at night by a Spanish colonel and saved by her fellow revolutionaries, imprisoned in Recogidas prison in Havana for rejecting the Spanish colonel’s advances and protecting the identity of her rescuers. Her story gained fame and notoriety in the American press and with the help of American journalists from the New York Journal, she escaped from prison and fled to freedom in this country. Back in the late 1800s, there was no internet, instagram influencers or YouTubers, but Evangelina Cisneros, by strength of her determination and courage and refusal to take the easy way out, became a celebrity and in part, the face of the Cuban revolution. She arrived in New York after her daring escape, became a highly sought after speaker, landed a book deal (this part amused me in part because somethings never change, even in the 1800s), and married one of the people responsible for her escape out of prison and to America. Her story was fascinating to read about, all the more so because it was all based on factual events.
Evangelina’s story bleeds into Grace, a fictional character inspired by the famed journalist, Nellie Bly. Grace is professionally ambitious, much to the dismay of her family. Instead of marrying well, Grace has aspirations of becoming a journalist, which is most unusually at a time when being a woman meant your options were severely limited. But never one to take no for an answer, she gets a job working for William Randolph Hearst at the New York Journal. Though her story, more so than the other two protagonists in this book, does contain some romantic elements, it is hardly the focus. Grace, unbeknownst to Hearst, is initially working as a spy for Joseph Pulitzer, Hearst’s main competition and owner of the New York World. She dreams of reporting on stories that actually matter, that make a difference in the world, and through her work for Hearst, she becomes immersed in the Cuban revolution. Grace is pretty much my favorite type of historical fiction heroine in that she has utter disdain for the rules that govern society and is much more interested in living her life on her own terms. I liked the evolution of her character, enjoyed the scenes that showed her at work, and also liked the romance between her and Rafael Harden, an American born businessman with Cuban heritage. Grace’s meeting with Evangelina is really interesting because it’s an interesting commentary on how the press helps shape the narrative of people in the public eye. The press and the public help to glamorize Evangelina in a way that makes helping her something palatable and worthwhile to them. And as Grace astutely points out, Recogidas houses many women prisoners who are also deserving of help. All of this leads Grace to Cuba and ultimately, to the final protagonist in the book.
Marina is a Cuban revolutionary, and while she’s fictional, she’s based on many of the women who fought for Cuban independence. Kicked out of her rich Cuban family for marrying a poor farmer, the book finds Marina and her young daughter and mother-in-law forcibly moved from their farm to a reconcentration camp in Havana under the dictates of General Weyler of the Spanish Army. Her husband is off fighting the Spanish as a Cuban revolutionary and it’s up to her to keep the rest of their small family safe. It’s fascinating to read the dichotomy between Evangelina and Marina, who both end up at Recogidas at different times and both of whom play pivotal roles in helping each other gain freedom. While Evangelina becomes famous and renowned as a Cuban hero, Marina’s story remains largely untold and forgotten, despite the fact that she works as a spy for the Cuban revolution, acting as a courier and carrying secret messages.
I found this book really fascinating and engaging and I’ve always enjoyed Chanel Cleeton’s writing. However, there is one thing that bothered me about this book and actually, I had a similar complaint about her last book, The Last Train to Key West, which also focused on the narratives of 3 female protagonists. The ending all seems to be tied up a little too neatly and maybe this is due to the fact that Chanel Cleeton began her writing career as a romance author and so HEAs are sort of part of the package for her. However, having all three of these narratives tie up as neatly as they are, feels a little disingenuous almost. Obviously, Evangelina’s part of the story ended the way it did because she was a real person and much of the book took its research from her autobiography. However, being that Grace and Marina were fictional characters, I think the book would have been a little bit stronger had the ending not been quite so perfect for both of them, especially Marina. Marina’s story ends in such a way that it’s almost like a fairy tale except that it takes place against the grim backdrop of a country torn apart by colonialism and war. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the HEA but this book doesn’t really require every single storyline be wrapped up quite so neatly.
Regardless of that very small complaint, I did really enjoy this book tremendously. The setting was lush and also stark, the characters memorable and engaging, and I learned something about a country that remains mostly a mystery to me.