The Last Train to Key West

The Last Train to Key West (woman in yellow Dior, superimposed on a beach) in front of a field of sunny yellow cupplants and punky purple ironweed, set amidst a wild tangle of green foliage with snatches of blue sky.
Chanel Cleeton’s The Last Train to Key West, in front of my late-summer garden.

Chanel Cleeton’s The Last Train to Key West, the third in a loosely connected set of historical novels/romances built around the sort-of-aristocratic Cuban Pérez family, is just my sort of beach read: filled with history, class strife, and the heady fantasy of True Love™, about which I can never read enough (even if I find Love at First Sight to be so funny I laugh myself into asthma attacks). It is loosely tied to Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba, both of which I have read—but, while I enjoyed both of said novels, neither hit me as hard nor suited me as well as The Last Train to Key West.

spoiler alert, they're both in the back
much spoilers! (not really)

The Last Train to Key West tells the interconnected stories of three women, all converging on Key West (Islamorada, more specifically, which isn’t Key West at all) at the same time as, unbeknownst to them, a mammoth hurricane is bearing down on Florida. Two of the women come from American aristocracy: one from a once-wealthy New York family, fleeing a dangerous (and unwanted) fiancé, one a wealthy Cuban newly married to a well-connected New Yorker (and likely mobster). The third, a pregnant waitress married to an abusive fisherman, dreams of freedom (and her husband’s death) while trying to protect herself and her baby.

Because Cleeton is at heart a romance novelist (I do love romance), and because romance is at its heart a beautiful fantasy (there’s a True Love™ out there waiting, and everyone gets a happily ever after), each of these three women has a love interest. Fallen heiress Elizabeth trails men, including Sam (who isn’t quite what he may appear), as she hunts for her missing brother. Waitress Helen is drawn to the silent veteran who frequents the café where she works, always sliding into her section. And Mirta Pérez, whose family ran into trouble when her father chose the wrong side, is newly married to Anthony Cordero, a New York mobster whose ties to Batista make him an advantageous match for her family—and whom she does not know at all.

Our characters weave around each other, coping with violent weather and violent people, trying to escape the sexism that binds them, fighting for happy endings of their own choosing. The three narratives twine around each other as well, now crossing, now moving away, exploring a place, a time, and a hurricane that a lot of us don’t much know. Mirta Pérez, as she gets to know her husband, must also face sides of the class coin she’s never before considered: her father, after all, had men to do dirty work for him, while Anthony used to do that work himself, before he climbed the rungs.

Elizabeth, who once was wealthy, and Helen, who has never been particularly solvent, both chafe at the desperation of poverty—albeit wildly differing forms of poverty. Through long-suffering vet John, meanwhile, Helen—and Cleeton’s readers—explore the plight of the World War I veterans building roads and railroads in Florida. Throughout The Last Train to Key West, Cleeton reminds her readers that those class barriers and demarcations with which we live today have been alive and well for a hell of a long time. (Anthony Cordero, who’s fabulously wealthy thanks to his ill-gotten gains, still can’t climb the highest rungs of society—though perhaps Mirta will change that for him.)

The storm brings with it a crescendo—of violence, of action, of relationships. (It’s a pretty on-the-nose metaphor, to be honest, but it totally works. Plus it’s historically accurate.) The relationships that have built along with the storm remind me, now and again, that romance is its own variety of fantasy: love at first sight is a Thing that Happens, and happily-ever-after is out there, waiting just around the bend. (I, cynic though I am, really like happily ever afters.) But The Last Train to Key West doesn’t shy away from the bleaker sides of life, even as it builds towards its happy endings and tender relationships.

The Last Train to Key West is, in a lot of ways, Americana—just a bleaker slice than what we might sometimes see, which, obviously, is just up my alley. I’ll totally be reading it again. (I even love the cover! Even though the dress is super Dior New Look and therefore didn’t exist until like 1950!) Hell, I like it so much I’ll probably read Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba, just so I can read this one again in all the glory of the full sequence. And I can’t wait for whatever Pérez forebear Chanel Cleeton decides to write about next.