Friday, June 4, 2021

Book Review: The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba

By Jami Denison

If you travel to Key West, Florida, there’s a buoy where tourists line up to take their pictures. It proclaims the site is the southernmost point in the continental U.S., and that it’s 90 miles to Cuba. With this geographic closeness, it’s no wonder that the United States has always been concerned about affairs in Cuba. 

Author Chanel Cleeton, a Florida native who grew up on stories about her family’s exodus from Cuba following the latest Cuban Revolution, has made a career telling stories about characters who personify the Cuban/American relationship. In 2018, her novel Next Year in Havana became a Reese Witherspoon book club pick, elevating the author’s profile. Her new book, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, takes readers to the oldest time period Cleeton has explored—the 1890s. This Cuban Revolution is against Spain, and as America is drawn into the fight, three women seek their own freedom. 

The story centers on New Yorker Grace Harrington, who tries to prove herself in the male-dominated profession of journalism; Cuban Marina Perez, who left her rich family to marry the gardener’s son and now finds herself in a re-concentration camp in Havana; and eighteen-year-old Evangelina Cisneros, imprisoned in a Cuban jail after rejecting the advances of an important Spanish military leader. Going to work for newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Grace finds herself caught in the middle of his war over readers with Joseph Pulitzer. When Hearst gets wind of Evangelina’s story, he sees her as a way to get more readers—and possibly involve the U.S. in a war against Spain. 

While the novel is written in first person and alternates among all the women’s stories, it feels as though these players are not as important as the events that surround them. Grace, especially, as a reporter, often feels like a first-person narrator for the time period, although she does have a love interest that rounds out her character. Evangelina Cisneros is a real person, and in her author’s note Cleeton talks about the voluminous research she conducted to bring the character to life. Cisneros’s portrayal is uneven—at times, she leaps off the page, and other times she feels like a mouthpiece to describe the latest political developments. In any case, though, her story is fascinating. 

Unusually for me, I was most drawn in by Pulitzer and Hearst’s battle and Hearst’s willingness to do anything to sell papers. For the past several years, politicians and their followers have claimed “fake news” to explain events that put them in a bad light, and news outlets have been aligning themselves with political parties. It feels new, but it’s actually a return to tradition. The Fairness Doctrine was adopted in 1949 to require news outlets to report on both sides of the issue; Ronald Reagan rescinded it in 1987. “Remember the Maine” is a plot point in The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, a reminder that we may have gone to war against Spain under false pretenses. If so, it wouldn’t be the last time. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Chanel Cleeton:

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