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 Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton
Also by this author: Next Year in Havana, When We Left Cuba, The Last Train to Key West
Published by Berkley on May 4, 2021
Genres: Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 384 •Format: E-ARC •Source: NetGalley
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.
I love when a historical fiction novel leaves me feeling both entertained and educated, and that is without a doubt the experience I get every time I pick up a Chanel Cleeton novel. Another sweeping tale set between Cuba and the United States, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is another standout from the Cuban-American author.
Similarly to the structure of Cleeton’s previous novel, The Last Train to Key West, her newest installment rotates between three POVs of strong women who are each facing unique challenges either in Cuba or the US during the late 1800s when Cuba is fighting for their independence from Spain. While seemingly having very different lives and backgrounds, the women’s stories eventually become entwined as the US becomes increasingly pulled into the conflict in Cuba. Arguably the most important character, Evangelina Cisneros, was an real historical figure and Cleeton crafts her fiction around the real life events the woman endured and inspired. I love how Cleeton balanced a true historical figure with her own fictional characters and wrote all of their narratives to be compelling in their own ways. I especially loved that this book also included another Perez woman, from the Cuban family who’s strong females have been a running thread subtly connecting all of Cleeton’s books about Cuba (it was so intriguing to be back at Miramar for a short time and seeing the groundwork for the family in her previously written novels that take place in the 20th century). I can’t get enough of the Perez women and sincerely hopes she keeps writing companion novels about them!
While Cleeton’s storytelling abilities shine through as usual in this novel, where it really excelled for me was how much I learned. Cleeton has the most digestible way of writing historical fiction and really, thoroughly educating the reader on a specific time in Cuban history without the writing ever become dry or overwhelming. As an America, I am frankly shocked each time I read one of Cleeton’s novels and find how underdeveloped my education regarding Cuba was considering how important a role the country played in America’s international relations over the course of the past 120+ years. I knew about the USS Maine and the Spanish-America role, but was unaware as to how drastic the situation in Cuba had become and how much of a catalyst it was for the war- from the decimation of Cuba’s countryside to the reconcentration camps- the horrors and human rights violations we often associate with larger world wars were happening just 90 miles off the cost of America in the late19th century. The way Cleeton weaves empathy and human emotion to bring these historical moments truly to life through her writing is astounding.
In addition to Cuban history and politics, I found this novel to also dive quite a bit into American history as well, specifically the rise of newspapers. I had no idea stunt girl reporting was a thing and there were so many determined women trying to break into journalism after the success of Nellie Bly. I thought it was fascinating that Cleeton wrote Pulitzer and Hearst into her novel as actual characters (I’ve been to Hearst castle a few times and he’s truly such a fascinating figure). I also appreciated the ethical dilemmas that Cleeton explored in this novel when it came to how the publishing industry was exploiting/leveraging the situation in Cuba for their own gain- whether it be to increase circulation, to drive the US toward war, to influence policy, etc. I found this novel to really push the content of this series outside of just Cuban politics and take a successful approach at Cuba’s wider international influence and ripple effects as well.
Overall: Chanel Cleeton has enthralled me again with her latest historical fiction novel surrounding Cuban history, and I cannot recommend her books enough to both longtime historical fiction readers and those hoping to explore the genre for the first time.