Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Published by Park Row Books on January 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
A stunning new novel of historical fiction from the author of
The Girls with No Names
based on the true unsolved murder of Cuban-born Hollywood actress Estelita Rodriguez.
Cuba, 1936. As her family struggles to recover from the Cuban Revolution, Estelita's own world opens when she's "discovered" singing in Havana nightclubs. At fifteen, her dreams to travel to America come true with the invitation to sing at the Copacabana. There, she begins a whirlwind romance with Chu Chu Martinez, a handsome actor she later marries. But when Chu Chu forbids her from performing, Estelita takes their daughter, Nina, and escapes to Hollywood.
Big Sur, 1966. Nina Rodriguez grew up enamored by her mother's beauty and glamour. She still doesn't understand how her vivacious mother could have died so quickly from influenza and suspects a more sinister plot pointing to her mother's most recent romance. When Nina finds herself repeating her mother's destructive patterns with men, she looks to the lessons of her mother's past to find a new way forward.
Based on the true events of Estelita Rodriguez's sensational life and exclusive interviews with the real Nina, Find Me in Havana beautifully captures the love, sacrifice and deep understanding that can only come from a mother-daughter relationship.
This is one of those stories that lives up to the adage “fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” Because this is a fictionalized story of a real life, a real death, and a real mystery. The author, having been told this story, filled in the blanks provided by the story of a daughter, 30 years later, telling the story of the mother who died under mysterious circumstances, and whom, quite possibly, she never really knew.
The woman at the center of this story is Estelita Rodriguez, a Cuban actress who was featured in a series of Westerns with Roy Rogers, and whose best known role was in Rio Bravo with John Wayne.
She died young and under rather mysterious circumstances in 1966, at the age of 37, leaving behind a husband she was about to divorce and a 20-year-old daughter whose memories provide the heart of this pseudo-speculative biography.
I say pseudo because Nina Rodriguez, although she tells this story much, much later in her life, is remembering events in her mother’s life that she either witnessed as a child or pieced together long after the events. Much of what she remembers is filtered through her childhood perspective and some of it may be inaccurate, either because of a lack of perspective, a lack of information, or simply the tendency of memories to blur over time.
So Nina’s memory of her stepfather Grant Withers’ death isn’t quite what happened. Or rather it isn’t quite when and where it happened. He did die that way, but four years after her mother divorced him and neither Estelita nor Nina were witnesses.
Time and memory play tricks on us all.
The story is also speculative because the cause of Estelita’s death was not determined at the time, so the mystery surrounding her death has never been resolved. It may be as Nina describes it in the book. That story fits the pieces she had but we’ll never really know.
What we do have is a story that blends Nina’s memories with messages that are written as if they came from Estelita. It’s the story of a life that had its highs and lows, but also a life that traveled from, through, and returned to some very dark times and places.
And she survived, even if entirely too often by the skin of her teeth. Until, suddenly and unexpectedly, she was gone. Leaving her daughter to pick up the tiny, broken pieces of both of their lives.
Escape Rating B: In a week where I was looking for stories with happy endings, this one was particularly heartbreaking. Estelita’s story is a walk through some very dark places, to the point where the reader sometimes questions how she managed to survive as long as she did.
It’s also a story where the protagonist has sown the seeds of their own destruction to the point where it’s not really a surprise that it finally reaches out and sucks her under.
One of the things that surprised me while reading is just how much Estelita and the heroine of yesterday’s book have in common. That they are both Latinx is the superficial part of that similarity. The deeper underlying commonality is the way that they both spend their lives looking for validation through the eyes of and in their relationships with, men. Usually the wrong men, at that. The differences begin because Jasmine, yesterday’s heroine, gets herself out of that trap, where Estelita never does. But part of Jasmine’s ability to do that comes from her marvelously supportive family, where Estelita seems to have always been an outsider in hers.
And that the times they lived in were so very different.
The hardest part of Estelita’s life to read, however, relates to her experience of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when she briefly returned to her homeland after her father and two of her brothers-in-law had been imprisoned for their support of the ousted Batista. The harrowing events of those few brief months, at least according to this fictionalized biography, left both Estelita and Nina emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives.
If it happened this way, or at all.
In the end, I have mixed feelings about this book. It is, as I said earlier, a walk through very dark places, whether fictionalized or not. It’s an absorbing read, even if it was not what I was in the mood for, and that colors my perceptions. The story also feels very subjective, as it isn’t so much Estelita’s story as it is Nina’s recollections of Estelita’s story as seen through Nina’s eyes as a child and young adult. The two women don’t relate as much to or understand each other nearly as well as the blurb might lead readers to believe.
In the end, a frequently compelling read, but not a remotely happy one.