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Last Seen in Havana: A Havana Mystery


Last Seen in Havana: A Havana Mystery

In true mystery style, LAST SEEN IN HAVANA is the story of Sarah, a woman who had disappeared from Cuba decades prior to the present time. Sarah’s daughter, Mercedes, returns to Cuba to help the grandmother who raised her and decides to investigate something that has bothered her all her life: the disappearance of her mother. Author Teresa Dovalpage provides us with two narratives: Mercedes' present-day account and Sarah’s story. Each chapter from the latter’s point of view begins with part of a letter she had written to her best friend, Rob.

All her life, Mercedes has wondered why her mother left her in Cuba. Where did she go and why? But her grandmother has always been extremely reticent, refusing to talk about it. Her father had been killed in Angola during the war, so there was no one to ask about her mother. Mercedes had married a visiting professor from Miami and moved there with him. But he was killed during a trip to Cuba, and now she has been called back to assist her grandmother.

"Dovalpage provides an ending that is both heart-wrenching and heartwarming. This is a lovely piece of historical fiction that would engender some very thoughtful book club discussions."

Dovalpage offers us much information about Cuba as we see through the eyes and words of Sarah how people lived. All these events occurred during difficult times for communist countries, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and after the Mariel boatlift. Citizens in Cuba were literally starving, and the stores were empty. Sarah shares the ridiculousness of the coupon system there, and while she was a fervent communist when she traveled to Cuba, seeing that kind of communism from afar is quite different than living it.

We see stores where only foreigners can shop and how intentionally making people stand in lines for hours for basic necessities keeps them busy and therefore not involved in protesting the political situation. And there are the eyes --- people always watching their neighbors and ready to turn them in for subversive behavior, or even just complaining about the daily difficulties of life.

As we hear about the hardships of surviving in communist Cuba, we also learn about Sarah's life with her husband, Joaquín. When Mercedes is born, Sarah realizes the impossibility of getting what she needs for the baby. There isn't enough fresh fruit to make into baby food. And forget disposable diapers or even regular ones; no stores carry them. While we are reading about that, we also see present-day Mercedes, who travels to Cuba with her best friend Candela, investigating what happened to her mother. Her grandmother isn't very forthcoming, but bit by bit, Mercedes uncovers some information. The search is made more difficult because Sarah wasn't allowed to keep her American name in Cuba, so Mercedes doesn't even know her first name or maiden name.

Another important element in the story is the house where Mercedes grew up. It's a mansion with a beautiful Art Deco style, and it's filled with expensive furniture and bad vibes. The portraits are of people Mercedes never knew, and her grandmother refuses to sell anything, saying that they don't belong to her. It is rumored that a witch lived there, and the house is filled with leaks since her grandmother also stubbornly has refused to fix anything.

When something catastrophic occurs, Mercedes is finally able to learn what happened to her mother. The mystery is solved, and the ending is touching and beautiful. But this novel is also a cautionary tale about living under the iron fist of an authoritarian regime where the people have no rights, and neighbors spy on neighbors. No one knows whom they can trust, and even leaving the country is fraught with danger. When everyone in Cuba is hungry, the people will do almost anything for money, especially American dollars.

However, there are so many people who are kind, generous and compassionate, and who demonstrate the beauty of human dignity and decency. In Mercedes' own family, there are those who understand and reflect those positive qualities, as well as some who literally would take a locket off your neck for a morsel of food. But kindness is, in fact, universal and can be found everywhere, even in the worst imaginable conditions. Dovalpage provides an ending that is both heart-wrenching and heartwarming. This is a lovely piece of historical fiction that would engender some very thoughtful book club discussions.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on February 9, 2024

Last Seen in Havana: A Havana Mystery
by Teresa Dovalpage

  • Publication Date: February 6, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Soho Crime
  • ISBN-10: 1641295392
  • ISBN-13: 9781641295390