Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

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At the end of the nineteenth century, three revolutionary women fight for freedom in New York Times bestselling author Chanel Cleeton’s captivating new novel inspired by real-life events and the true story of a legendary Cuban woman–Evangelina Cisneros–who changed the course of history.

A feud rages in Gilded Age New York City between newspaper tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. When Grace Harrington lands a job at Hearst’s newspaper in 1896, she’s caught in a cutthroat world where one scoop can make or break your career, but it’s a story emerging from Cuba that changes her life.

Unjustly imprisoned in a notorious Havana women’s jail, eighteen-year-old Evangelina Cisneros dreams of a Cuba free from Spanish oppression. When Hearst learns of her plight and splashes her image on the front page of his paper, proclaiming her, “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba,” she becomes a rallying cry for American intervention in the battle for Cuban independence.

With the help of Marina Perez, a courier secretly working for the Cuban revolutionaries in Havana, Grace and Hearst’s staff attempt to free Evangelina. But when Cuban civilians are forced into reconcentration camps and the explosion of the USS Maine propels the United States and Spain toward war, the three women must risk everything in their fight for freedom.

Source: NetGalley; ARC generously provided by publisher in exchange for an honest review

It's been one of the highlights of the last few years for me to read each new novel in Chanel Cleeton's based in or about Cuba. I've delighted in the stories she's brought to life about the people in the era.

In The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, set in the late 1800's, she introduces three women who are unyielding in their principles. There's the idealist, Grace, who has aspirations to become a journalist eager to cover the hard-hitting stories but that are only trusted to the men. Evangelina is a young Cuban woman who opposes Spanish rule and is determined to help her country get out from under its thumb. And finally, Marina who along with her husband has been fighting for the revolutionaries. In a nice bit of coming full circle, this Marina who secretly transports messages, is the ancestor of the Perez family we met in Next Year in Havana. These women's lives, so drastically different, intersect and the impact is forever life changing. 

Grace captured my attention probably because she's this wide-eyed ambitious young woman determined to succeed so she walked away from her family's money to do this on her own terms. Considering the time period, it's a courageous choice. I was especially taken with her composure. Her storyline introduced me to "yellow journalism" and the rivalry between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. I can't tell you the number of times I set aside the book so I could look up more about the two men. And it's also through Grace's eyes that we see how Hearst played a role in getting America to intervene on Cuba's behalf. It's amazing how much influence he exerted. Once he heard about the plight of Evangelina Cisneros who was imprisoned by the Spanish government, he got personally involved in the plot to help her escape.

Evangelina's story both scared me and angered me. There's unfortunately not much historical information about her personal life, especially after she escapes, but Cleeton pieces together what is available to show us a picture of an impressive woman, often stoic in the face of the injustice thrown at her. Unaware at first of the media sensation that is built around her imprisonment, she becomes the poster girl and rallying cry for Cuba's freedom in America. Once she's free, she's booked for several tours around America, meeting with high-level officials and organizations to garner support among Americans for Cuba's freedom. The tone of Evangelina's story changed once she arrived in America as she went from an imprisoned woman to a woman putting on the persona that the media created for her. It made me mindful of how to this day the media does still latch onto an idea or a person, making them the face of whatever the topic is, and just runs with it. Evangelina's experience highlights that. I'll admit to being a little bored with her story as it wore on because her life in the spotlight became repetitive, and I sensed that Evangelina herself got weary of playing to the public's expectations. She probably wanted to be more directly involved in the revolutionary efforts but accepted that her role was to be the face and mouthpiece of her country and people.

Marina's is probably the most suspenseful story here. As a courier, she's tasked with delivering messages within a secret and tight-knit network of individuals plotting against Spain. Like Grace and Evangelina, she's given up the comforts of home and family. Unlike her wealthy family, she's chosen her side and fixed firmly there. She recalls stories of a thriving Cuba and longs to see that again. Marina is the everyday civilian who gives us a glimpse of a devastated country, and of its people struggling to put food on the table. Now with a resolute sense of duty, she willingly and without hesitation puts herself in the midst of danger. Her chapters were a tense experience as I was either worried for her or her daughter's safety.

Reading this felt very "real time" to me, like I was transported there to see these events unfolding. Evangelina's story, Cuba's fight for independence, America's stake in Cuba, Heart's and Pulitzer's rivalry ... all of it riveted the entire nation, and me. One common thread in all these novels is that her heroines are brilliantly resilient in the face of adversity. They wear their pride and love for country on their sleeves. Cleeton beautifully brings out the richness and complexity of Cuba's long history so it shouldn't be a surprise that The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is as spellbinding as her previous novels. 

~ Bel


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