Pub Day Review: The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba
Happy pub day to the fourth installment of the Cuba series by Chanel Cleeton, The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba!
I first fell in love with the Cuba series when the first book, Next Year in Havana, was selected as a Reese's Book Club pick, and I have thoroughly enjoyed how Cleeton makes the characters and setting jump from the page. The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is no different.
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.
The very first thing I loved about this book is that it is centered on a piece of history I am less familiar with: Cuba's fight for independence from Spain in the late 19th century + the Spanish-American War. If you've followed me for any period of time, you may know historical fiction is my favorite genre, and I love it even more when I find a book that teaches me about a piece of history I don't know much about.
Cleeton crafts such interesting, complex, deep characters. It's truly incredible. I've felt this way about characters in all of her books. In this installment, we have three leads—Evangelina (who was a real person!), Marina, and Grace. I love that there is something to learn from each of them: Marina teaches us about the beauty of unconditional love, Grace teaches us the power of following your gut and pursuing your dreams, even if they seem out of reach, and Evangelina teaches us what true loyalty looks like. Their stories weave together beautifully, something I imagine is very difficult when you have a story as layered as this one is.
"There are those of us who dream that one day women will have the same rights as men, that we will become the country so many have sacrificed their lives for, that we will all be equal and represented under one Cuban flag."
Something else you should know about Cleeton's books is that she brings her setting to life. I haven't visited Cuba, but she truly does transport the reader. You can feel the humid air, taste the food (although not so much in this one because it's set in wartime and the Cubans' conditions were horrific), feel the ocean breeze—it's just incredible. She also brought 19th century NYC to life, and I loved learning more about the Hearst and Pultizer newspaper machines of the late 1800s.
I think it's important to know going in that this one is much more history-focused than the other books (the others are definitely history-focused, too, but this one felt more so). It just has to be. There's so much Cleeton has to set up for the reader so you truly understand the time period. I know that may not be for everyone, but I think if you know this going in and set your expectations accordingly, you'd still appreciate this book even if historical fiction isn't typically your favorite genre. It's just clear that Cleeton researched the heck out of this book—from the "war" of newspapers in NYC to the fight for independence in Cuba and harsh conditions in Cuba due to Spanish occupation.
And a note on the title: I was pleasantly surprised to see how that came together and the sentiment behind it from the woman deemed "the most beautiful girl in Cuba." It's not a major spoiler if I share it here, but I think it's more powerful coming from Cleeton's words, not mine.
I still need to read The Last Train to Key West, which I plan to read this month. So as you can see, I am reading them out of order (only slightly), and that's totally fine! This isn't a series you absolutely need to read in order.
If you've found yourself intrigued by my review and want to get your hands on a copy, head to my bookstagram, @bookedwithbecca, and enter for your chance to win a copy of The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba (goes live Tuesday, May 4 at 12 p.m. CST). If you don't want to wait and/or feel like luck isn't on your side, you can buy it on Bookshop here or Amazon here.