Sometimes when I like a book I have so much to say and so many feelings that I am unable to get a coherent review out and I spend days or weeks spewing and deleting words. That’s how I have felt about my recent Adriana Herrera binge. I think I may have coherent thoughts now, but just in case this gets out of control again, the most important thing is – I like these books and think you should read them.
Adriana Herrera’s debut series focuses on four men who grew up together in the Bronx, Nesto, Camilo, Patrice and Juan Pablo. They are Afro-Latinex immigrants and the children of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica, and they are queer.
American Dreamer introduces the four series protagonists, but focuses on Nesto. Nesto is leaving the safety of New York City and moving to the smaller, less competitive Ithaca to see if he can make his food truck a success. His truck sells burritos filled with Caribbean street foods. It sounds amazing, and as Camilo says:
You know white people love ‘ethnic’ food wrapped in a tortilla.
Oh, the accuracy. Nesto wants to make his food truck work, so naturally he meets Jude, a librarian and falls deeply in lust/like. Neither Jude nor Nesto wants to get into a relationship, but they can’t stay away from each other.
American Love Story recently won one of the first Ripped Bodice Awards for Excellence in Romantic Fiction. I do think that it’s a stronger than American Dreamer. Herrera is more settled into her world and more comfortable with her characters. We’ve met Patrice and Easton before. Patrice has accepted a tenure track assistant professorship at Cornell and Easton is the acting DA while his boss recovers from a health scare. Easton would very much like to explore the attraction with Patrice, but Patrice has a lot of baggage. I really loved the way Herrera played with the grump and the sunshine trope, making it clear that the grump and the sunshine were masks.
The antagonists in American Dreamer are a white woman willing to throw her power around, Nesto’s workaholism. and Jude’s conservative religious family. We’ve all met a Misty, the white woman who will mow you down to advance her kids, or will call the cops on the black and brown folks having a bbq. In fiction, she’s easy to dismiss because her malevolence is right there on the surface. In real life she has can access the machine of structural racism. Herrera gives her pettiness weight, but surrounds her with good people who make judgments based on worth. It felt good to see Nesto and Jude’s hard work win. Nesto and Jude overcome their external antagonists and lay the groundwork for addressing the internal baggage. American Love Story required more of a leap of faith because the antagonist is harder to illustrate and harder to fight – systemic racism. Obviously Patrice and Easton don’t defeat systemic racism. Herrera does explore how easy it is for well meaning people to not act when they are not directly impacted and also how hard it is to change a system once you are inside it.
The Dreamers series isn’t going to be for everyone. Herrera chooses to put a strong emphasis on social justice and politics. I think she does it well and I enjoyed it. I believe that pop culture has as much power to shape our culture as it is shaped by it. What we see on screens, read, or listen to shapes our view of the world. I read romance because it has the power to give me escape and a happy ending while also dismantling patriarchy and white supremacy. It’s a lot to ask of a genre, but there are a lot of writers out there who are writing in that sweet spot. I am terrified by what is happening in the US. I want a world where people can live their lives, fall in love, do soul satisfying work and have kids if they want. So I read romance, mostly contemporary and I look for a wide variety of representations. I want to see all kinds of women, cis and trans, and all kinds of nonbinary people being centered, appreciated, loved, validated and achieving their dreams. I want to see that out in the world and I want to see it in the books I read. Not every book I read is overtly political, but the ones I like, love, and greatly esteem are doing their bit to fight oppression one book at a time.