Sunday, December 22, 2013

Havana Lost by Libby Fischer Hellman

Havana Lost starts with a bang. It is 1958 and in the first paragraph Cuban rebels set off a bomb in the bank just up the street from the jewelry store where Francesca (Frankie) Pacelli is shopping. She is unhurt and is swiftly whisked away by one of her bodyguards. Her father is Tony Pacelli, a mobster, an associate of Meyer Lansky, and the owner of La Perla. Frankie is his 18-year-old, headstrong daughter.

In Part One of the book, Frankie turns down a marriage proposal from a childhood sweetheart but does give him her virginity. Nicky has to return to the States and college, and Frankie is supposed to follow but she encounters Luis Perez. “He wasn’t that handsome. He had thick, dark, unruly hair that refused to lie straight and stuck out at all angles, and his Roman nose was too big for his face. His lips were full, his chin unimpressive. His skin was olive, and in the dim light, appeared sallow. But it was his eyes—dark and smoky—and the expression in them that made it impossible for her to look away.” He is only a few years older than Frankie, and is a rebel. They become lovers, Frankie becomes pregnant, and, in the confusion of fighting the revolution, Tony’s goons grab her and spirit her out of Cuba.

Part Two begins 30 years later. Luis, now a general in the Cuban army, is stationed in Angola where, through a series of fortunate events he is led to—and makes a sketch map of—a deposit of columbite-tantalite. Coltan is used in electronics and as a character points out, “…imagine a day when you will have access to a phone you can take anywhere in the world, as small as a pack of cigarettes. Or an electronic device you can read books on.” The scene shifts to Chicago where the child of the liaison between Frankie and Luis is 32-year-old Michael, who has not joined the family business. Indeed, he was a military policeman during the Gulf War, speaks four languages, and seems to be drifting. He is sent to obtain a map of the coltan deposit from a man he does not realize is his father (Tony forced Frankie to marry one of the mob’s soldiers back in Chicago—a loveless affair). In Havana, Michael meets Carla a young, Cuban doctor. They become lovers, Carla becomes pregnant, and at the end of Part Two, she has to flee Cuba.

Part Three is now present day. Carla’s child is 20-year-old Luisa. Frankie has become head of the Chicago family on the (natural) death of her father. Unscrupulous men learn of Angola’s coltan deposit and the map and they will do whatever is necessary to obtain it.

This thriller is Libby Fischer Hellmann’s tenth novel and her third thriller to explore “how strife and revolution affect the human spirit.” The novel covers 50 years in a family’s life, and moves effortlessly from Cuba to Angola to Miami to Chicago. It is an interesting amalgam of love story (actually, several stories), modern Cuban history, and mob life. It is worth reading on several levels, and I am glad I did.

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