Cuba, 1958. Elisa is only sixteen years old when she meets Duardo and she knows he's the love of her life from the moment they first dance the rumba together in downtown Havana. But Duardo is a rebel, determined to fight in Castro's army, and Elisa is forced to leave behind her homeland and rebuild her life in distant England. But how can she stop longing for the warmth of Havana, when the music of the rumba still calls to her?
England, 2012. Grace has a troubled relationship with her father, whom she blames for her beloved mother's untimely death. And this year more than ever she could do with a shoulderto cry on - Grace's career is in flux, she isn't sure she wants the baby her husband is so desperate to have and, worst of all, she's begun to develop feelings for their best friend Theo. Theo is a Cuban born magician but even he can't make Grace's problems disappear. Is the passion Grace feels for Theo enough to risk her family's happiness?
I have been a fan of Rosanna Ley since her first release The Villa. She has a deft touch when it comes to transporting her readers to whatever foreign clime may feature in her books. There is always a solid, absorbing storyline with a hint of mystery and fascinating characters that keep you hooked and guessing right until you turn the last page deeply satisfied but yet bereft you have another long wait until Rosanna's next book is published. When I saw the book was featured in the Quercus Summer Reading Challenge I knew I wanted to take part especially as Last Dance in Havana was to be the book featured in June. Thankfully I was thrilled to be accepted for the challenge and all the better to start it with an author whom I always enjoy reading. Honestly I would have read this anyway whether I was part of the challenge or not (I'm really lucky and grateful to be included) as Rosanna's books have brought me many pleasurable hours of reading in the past and I knew this book would prove to be no different.
Last Dance in Havana is an exotic tale of love and friendship set between Cuba in the 1950's and Bristol, England in 2012. Not many people would have had an opportunity to visit Cuba considering its turbulent history and closed doors until recently to the wider world except for the chosen few. But now the island is becoming more open to tourists and though the chance of me ever visiting the country is highly unlikely through reading this story I felt the vibrancy, colour and magic of Cuba radiate from the pages. It made for a riveting summer read or really perfect for any time of year.
The book opens in Havana in 1957, Elisa is only 15 but taken by her cousin for a night out where she witnesses the beautiful and sensual rumba in action 'It seemed to exude something, she couldn't quite understand and,a sensuality that was as yet unknown'. Elisa becomes absorbed in her surroundings, the music and the mass of swaying bodies around her. She turns and catches the eye of the most magnificent man she has ever seen - Duardo. He is a man of confidence and with strong African features. I mention African because this is significant later on in the story and Elisa's heritage is Spanish. Immediately there was heat, electricity, passion and an intense connection between the couple and you knew this pair had eyes only for each other disregarding the world and the situation ongoing in Cuba as if they only existed in their own special, unique corner of the island.
Years later the author takes us to Bristol, it's 2012 and Grace is working as a masseuse and is intrigued by the power of touch and it's healing abilities to create physical harmony between body and mind. Grace is at a crossroads in her life. We are witness to her battles both internally and externally. Past events are blighting the present and in a way her future 'You couldn't simply take hold of a clean duster and wipe away the past. Once something had happened, it had happened'. Grace is becoming more and more estranged from her father Philip who has taken to alcohol as a dependent in a big way. He is haunted by a significant event in the past the same event that Grace is battling to come to terms with. Grace's preconceptions are forcing her to view people in a different light. She is rash and makes judgements without the full facts and harbours deep resentment towards people without ever actively seeking the truth. If Grace had not been as closed she could have sought the truth far earlier and saved heartbreak and pain but there is a stubborn streak to her and that is what prevents her reaching out to her father. The same streak allows her to go to a side many people view as wrong but there had to have been a deep longing in her for something else she had to have known in her heart that she wasn't happy but was playing too close to home the right thing to do? Grace is married to Robbie who seems nice enough but he wants more from the relationship and babies are on his agenda but not at all on Grace's list. Whether Grace was pushed or voluntarily took the plunge in playing with fire it is for the reader to decide and also as the story progresses, does what happen become right and your opinion begin to change? Caught in the middle between Grace and her father is her stepmother Elisa who we met in the prologue. We learn how she came to live in England but how her heart is still firmly rooted in Cuba. Just what has she been through and what has become of Duardo. Elisa was such an endearing character and my favourite in the book, we gain a deep insight into how she is feeling as we are taken back to events in the 1950's in Havana. She has been through such heartbreak and devastation but secretly underneath it all your fingers are crossed that there is a more positive outlook in store for her.
The author merged the scenes set in England perfectly with those set in Havana and the countryside of Cuba. In England things seemed tense and to slightly spiral out of control but the calmness and beauty of Cuba despite all the island and its inhabitants have endured shines through and provides the light this book needed. The sections based in Cuba were placed perfectly and offered great contrast and shade between events ongoing in Bristol. Things slowly began to make sense as we hear from characters living in Havana in 2012 and the actions of people although I can't justify them were given solid reasons. My eyes were opened wide to the history of the island and it's connection to Bristol. I had no idea about plantations and the connotations surrounding them but these aspects was expertly weaved into the story. The reader slowly comes to understand that one should grab every opportunity that comes your way be it in love or any other matter in life.But also that love can be all encompassing and never forgotten .It will remain with you and affect you for a long time, that it is worth fighting for despite the odds stacked against you. Keep trying and do not allow deceit and obstacles get in your way.I had hoped that both Grace and Elisa would take this advice as finally find what they had been searching for whether they knew it or not.
Robbie seemed to be like a dog with a bone, he pushes and persists regarding the baby issue. Why can't he see that Grace is just not that interested, it's a facet to her life that she wants to remain firmly closed. It's clear the couple were having problems regardless of this issue and maybe they weren't destined to stay together forever but I do think it was one strand in a multitude of factors that pushed Grace into doing something that many would view as being completely unacceptable. Combined with Grace's strained relationship with her father Grace must have felt trapped and that special (in her mind) someone must have provided that sense of release that she needed whether she realised it or not. Whether you approve of the actions of Grace or not you can see she is tormented inside. The past and all its unanswered questions and misunderstandings has such a forceful impact on her thought and decision making process in the present. I was completely torn in two as to whether I actually like Grace. I couldn't identify completely with her but on other levels her internal struggle was uncomfortable to observe. Elisa too is comparable to Grace with her mind and heart in turmoil. Yet is not her actions which have consequences but rather the decision of one person many years ago to withhold such vital, life changing information that has a forbearing on the rest of Elisa's life until we meet her in Bristol. It just goes to show that with a few words everything can change and ones life will not be the same again with the repercussions felt down through the years. Elisa battles her own demons and a longing for her homeland and the sights, sounds, smells , colours and dancing that shaped and touched her. I had my fingers crossed that Elisa would seek and find the resolution and confirmation she so desperately needed in order to find her ultimate peace and happiness. For too long she had lived the lives of others now it was time to live her own back in the place where she truly belonged. But what obstacles will be placed in her path before true love can once again hopefully blossom?
So has Rosanna Ley written another fantastic storyline that tugs at your heartstrings and grips you from page one? Has she made the island of Cuba a place with a turbulent history and closed to so many come alive through the pages? Has she made you want to drop everything and visit Cuba to experience the sights, sounds, smells, colours and their exotic passionate dance the rumba? Has the author portrayed a story of love, friendship, secrets, betrayal in such a way that you are rooting for the majority of the characters the whole way through the book? Yes is the answer to all these questions and any others you might have. Rosanna has written this books with such passion and love for her subject matter that you can't fail to feel and sense her enthusiasm and dedication to the book and its characters. Yes the actions of certain characters won't always make you like them as their results have such far reaching consequences and there are so many misunderstandings. Yet Grace, Elisa, Theo and Robbie draw you into their world and broaden your own horizons, opinions and viewpoints and provide plenty of food for thought and discussion. Rosanna has reaffirmed for me what a brilliant author she truly is. She mentions in the acknowledgements that writing this book was full of challenges and way outside her personal experience.Yet you could never sense this at any point in the story Rosanna had done such impeccable and minute research that all the finer and more major details just helped to add that special something to the story and make the overall plot come alive even more.
Whether you are at home in the garden during the summer or sitting on a beach in a foreign clime Last Dance in Havana should be firmly by your side. It's everything you would want in a read as you are transported to an enigmatic time and place to read an absorbing, beautifully crafted story. As first books go in The Summer Reading Challenge, Quercus have definitely selected a stunner. In July the choice is Florence Grace by Tracy Rees, an author whose début I enjoyed immensely last year, let's hope it is as good as June's selection proved to be.
Many thanks to Alainna from Quercus for my copy of Last Dance in Havana to read as part of the Quercus Summer Reading Challenge and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.