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LAST SEEN IN HAVANA by Teresa Dovalpage: Book Review

Visiting one’s childhood home often proves to be a challenging experience, especially if you have been living in the United States for years and are now returning to Cuba.  So much has changed, either in reality or in one’s imagination, that it’s not surprising that Mercedes Spivey is not quite certain how she should feel about her return.

Mercedes spent her childhood with her paternal grandmother, her mamina, living in a huge ramshackle mansion in Havana.  Their home had always needed major repairs, but now it, as well as mamina, has fallen on hard times, and it is primarily Mercedes’ concern for her grandmother’s mental and physical wellbeing that has prompted her return to Havana.

Mercedes’s mother was American.  She managed to travel to Cuba in the 1980s despite the prohibition in effect at the time, and once there she fell in love with a Cuban military officer. Her birth name was Sarah, but over time she changed it to Tania Rojas to fit into Cuban life more easily.  Mercedes was born, her parents got married, and life went on more or less smoothly until she was two years old.  Then, suddenly, her mother vanished, never to return; her father’s army unit was sent to Angola and he died there.

She was raised by her grandmother, who answered all her granddaughter’s questions except the one she most wanted answered:  what happened to my mother?  The unsatisfactory conversations have dominated Mercedes’ life and fueled her lifelong desire to find her mother.

Now the widowed owner of a successful bakery in Miami, La Bakería Cubana, Mercedes decides it’s time to return to Havana.  She’s been upset by recent phone calls, in which mamina was confused and disoriented.  A phone call from her grandmother’s neighbor convinces her that she needs to visit as soon as possible, and a follow-up call makes the point even more clearly.  Her mamina thinks Mercedes is a schoolchild in Havana and doesn’t remember her granddaughter’s age or her move to Florida.

Two days later Mercedes and her friend Candela fly to Cuba’s capital city. Both mamina and the house are in worse shape than Mercedes had anticipated, and she’s determined to take care of both.  Making repairs on Santa Villa Marta is the easier of the two; taking care of her grandmother is much more difficult.  Although it’s clear that mamina’s physical and mental health are failing, she downplays her difficulties and at first refuses to accept any help.  Plus, Mercedes’ desire to find out more about her mother is still a forbidden topic.

As well as being a novel with a terrific protagonist and a gripping story, Last Seen in Havana offers readers a close look into Havana and its nearby countryside, both in the 1980s and the present.  We can understand the fascination Cuba held for Sarah/Tania, a young woman with “leftist” ideals, but after living in a country with coupons needed for food and clothing, assuming either was available, is it possible that she simply returned to the United States without informing anyone, leaving her toddler daughter behind?

Teresa Dovalpage was born in Cuba and is a novelist, short story writer, translator, and playwright, and her knowledge of the country of her birth comes through on every page.  You can read more about her at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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