I received this book for free from Publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!! This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Cat King of Havana by Tom Crosshill
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on September 6th, 2016
Genres: Young Adult
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
Rick Gutierrez is . . . the Cat King of Havana! A cat-video tycoon turned salsa-dancer extraordinaire, he’ll take Cuba by storm, romance the girl of his dreams, and ignite a lolcat revolution!
At least that’s the plan.
It all starts when his girlfriend dumps Rick on his sixteenth birthday for uploading cat videos from his bedroom when he should be out experiencing the real world. Known as “That Cat Guy” at school, Rick isn’t cool and he knows it. He realizes it’s time for a change.
Rick decides joining a salsa class is the answer . . . because of a girl, of course. Ana Cabrera is smart, friendly, and smooth on the dance floor. Rick might be half-Cuban, but he dances like a drunk hippo. Desperate to impress Ana, he invites her to spend the summer in Havana. The official reason: learning to dance. The hidden agenda: romance under the palm trees.
Except Cuba isn’t all sun, salsa, and music. There’s a darker side to the island. As Rick and Ana meet his family and investigate the reason why his mother left Cuba decades ago, they learn that politics isn’t just something that happens to other people. And when they find romance, it’s got sharp edges.
I picked up The Cat King of Havana for one simple and perhaps shallow reason: I’m going to Cuba in November. And I know basically nothing about the island, the culture, the history, and only bits and pieces about the political situation. What better way to get a taste of all of that than through fiction? Well, The Cat King of Havana, while for the rest not being a typically me story, did deliver on that.
The Cat King of Havana is about Rick, a Cuban American webmaster of a cat video site who may be considered… a geek. He doesn’t get out much, but he doesn’t mind, because he likes his realm of internet life… until he gets dumped. In an effort to get out there, he takes up salsa dancing and quickly falls for Ana, an experienced dancer. And together, they travel to Havana for a summer of learning the purest form of Cuban salsa, a trip that ends up being so much more.
I should be upfront, because nothing ruins a book like having the wrong expectations. This is not a love story. Rick is obviously crushing hard on Ana in a kind of desperate and idyllic way. He ascribes qualities to her and potential to their relationship that aren’t always entirely fair. Ana’s pretty clear from the beginning though: she doesn’t feel that way about him. That may sound like Rick is too pushy, but it honestly didn’t read that way. This is just a classic and realistic tale of unrequited love – in the way that a lot of us probably experienced in high school. Rick discovers so much about himself over the course of this book that eventually he grows out of it too.
I came into this book for Cuba, and I definitely feel like that part of the story was strong. You can tell that Crosshill is intimately familiar with the island and its culture. It really felt like an insider perspective, and I felt like I learned SO MUCH. The poverty, the limitations, the heartbreaking push to frame the whole of the country to the lens and wishes of tourists (which is degrading like hell), the contrast between the old and younger generations, the effect of new media and the internet on exposing the political situation – despite the risks that inherently carries… I’m impressed. Though I didn’t care overly much for the characters, being introduced to this rich setting alone already kept me reading.
The thing about the characters is… I don’t know. It’s hard to really like them when there’s such a focus on a romance that is so hopeless. Rick is kind of cute in the way that he cares so much, but he borders on annoying at certain points. Ana is an admirable free spirit, but kind of distant and idealized from Rick’s perspective. Rick’s family is… okay. Though I feel so conflicted about his annoying cousin. But I can get behind that group of characters when push comes to shove and they stand up in whatever way they can to the injustice they find in Cuba. It was a little nerve-wracking, but their hearts were 100% in the right place.
At the end of the day, though nothing in the book truly grabbed me as being fantastic, it has a lot of great messages: standing up for what’s right, respecting foreign cultures, growing into your own person and letting go of childish fantasies, treasuring friendship above love, hard work paying off and being enough to make a distant dream into a reality… This story wasn’t what I expected, but I don’t regret reading it for a second.