I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton
Also by this author: Next Year in Havana, When We Left Cuba
on June 16, 2020
Genres: Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 320 •Format: E-ARC •Source: NetGalley
In 1935 three women are forever changed when one of the most powerful hurricanes in history barrels toward the Florida Keys in New York Times bestselling author Chanel Cleeton's captivating new novel.
Everyone journeys to Key West searching for something. For the tourists traveling on Henry Flagler’s legendary Overseas Railroad, Labor Day weekend is an opportunity to forget the economic depression gripping the nation. But one person’s paradise can be another’s prison, and Key West-native Helen Berner yearns to escape.
The Cuban Revolution of 1933 left Mirta Perez’s family in a precarious position. After an arranged wedding in Havana, Mirta arrives in the Keys on her honeymoon. While she can’t deny the growing attraction to the stranger she’s married, her new husband’s illicit business interests may threaten not only her relationship, but her life.
Elizabeth Preston's trip from New York to Key West is a chance to save her once-wealthy family from their troubles as a result of the Wall Street crash. Her quest takes her to the camps occupied by veterans of the Great War and pairs her with an unlikely ally on a treacherous hunt of his own.
Over the course of the holiday weekend, the women’s paths cross unexpectedly, and the danger swirling around them is matched only by the terrifying force of the deadly storm threatening the Keys.
I’m a huge fan of Cleeton’s previous Cuban themed historical fiction novels, and The Last Train to Key West is no exception. Cleeton has created a fictional world of strong female protagonists exploring the nuances of Cuban and American politics across her companion novels, and while each story explores a fascinating mix of history, drama, and romance, I found The Last Train to Key West to be my favorite yet!
The Last Train to Key West has subtle nods to Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba, featuring a protagonist who is Beatriz and Elisa’s aunt, Mirta, who’s just been married off to an American “businessman” and left Cuba for a honeymoon in the Florida Keys. While as an avid fan of Cleeton’s first two novels I enjoyed the references to the Perez family, reading her prior books is not necessary to enjoy this story. Cleeton’s third novel focuses less on post WWII Cuba and more on Cuban American politics, taking place in the Florida Keys during the great depression and exploring the aftermath of WWI on the country. The story also follows three separate women, all from very different backgrounds and geographic locations: Mirta from Cuba, Elizabeth from New York, and Helen from Key West. While it was my first time reading a Cleeton novel that centered protagonists outside of the Perez family, I found the different POVs to be well written and they all intersected and were woven together perfectly to create a cohesive story.
Helen, a waitress at a local diner, is in a marriage she longs to escape but feels bound by societal pressure and has a baby on the way. Her job sets the scene for many of the pivotal encounters of the story, as key players to the plot pass in and out of the diner and interact with her. She’s steady, thoughtful, and resilient. I loved her story of quiet strength and think out of all of the characters she had the greatest character arc, from downtrodden wife to resilient mother in just the space of a few days.
Elizabeth is a former socialite who’s family fell into financial ruin due to the Great Depression. She’s decided to take fate into her own hands by traveling down to Key West from New York by herself to find a long lost relation who she believes can help save her family. She ends up meeting and teaming up with a federal investigator when she reaches Key West and finds herself involved in an organized crime investigation. Elizabeth’s story took quite a few turns and yet paralleled the other two women’s in its own way.
Mirta, the Perez family’s relative, has just arrived in Key West on her honeymoon with a man she barely knows, a “businessman” from New York with a questionably large sum of money and even more questionable connections. Through Mirta readers gain insight into the unrest that’s befalling Cuba, with Machado falling out of favor and Batista taking over (an interesting parallel to Next Year in Havana when Elisa’s family is then dealing with the same predicament when Castro comes to power and ousts Batista). Mirta is unsure of her new husband’s temperament and motivations and what life away from her beloved Cuba will be like. I found her story to be the most interesting and actually really enjoyed the romance between her and Anthony!
I loved that all three protagonists had different motivations, goals and priorities and though they all went about their journeys in different ways, their paths kept crossing (even if they didn’t realize it). There were a few twists and connections I was able to guess early on View Spoiler »like John being Elizabeth’s brother « Hide Spoiler but others that really took me by surprise but were excellently and sneakily woven in by the author View Spoiler »such as Tom being the man Mirta kills. I didn’t see that coming AT ALL, but what an excellent twist! « Hide Spoiler The fact that the author was able to make me so invested in the characters’ lives in a book that essentially takes place over the course of a long weekend was truly impressive, and I would 100% love to see these women pop up in Cleeton’s future works, even in just cameo appearances! I would also say that this novel is less political and more character driven than Cleeton’s other installments in this series, which makes it a quick, page turner of a read but is still clearly well researched and adds color and life to elements of Depression-era history that many may not be familiar with, including the WWI veterans’ camps in the Florida Keys and The Bonus Army.
I can’t fail to mention the backdrop and perhaps catalyst for the entire story, the Labor Day hurricane. I did a little internet sleuthing and this hurricane was one of the deadliest to ever make landfall in the United States and pretty much obliterated the Keys- and the author pays homage to the devastating experience in her writing. All three of the women face the hurricane in different dire circumstances, from being trapped in a floating cottage that’s been ripped from it’s foundation to dealing with desperate looters to being swept away in the storm surge itself; the descriptions of what the characters faced were truly catastrophic and mind-boggling. As someone who lives nowhere near a hurricane zone, it’s hard to fathom the magnitude of the damage but Cleeton paints the terror and sensory experience of the storm so vividly, and doesn’t hold back in detailing the horrific aftermath.
Overall: The Last Train to Key West is a fabulous, fast paced historical fiction novel that explores the intersection of the lives of three dynamic women and their journeys through finding both independence and romance. The plot was intricately crafted and even the smallest details seamlessly came together by the end of the story. I can’t recommend this book enough for even the most casual fans of historical fiction!
*Thank you so much to NetGalley and Berkley publishing group for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review!