Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour: Fiction Book Review
Overview: Sara and Emilie both fought through tough childhoods on their journey to adulthood. Sara escaped her small town and its ghosts at 14, paying a high price to get to LA. Emilie was born in the city but struggled in her own way to find her place and her voice among a family that had to devote all of their time to her sister, Collette, and her drug addiction. Sara makes it out of the youth shelter to become a sought-after bartender/mixologist, creating menus for LA's hottest restaurants. Emilie drifts in the wind, taking 7 years to finish college, working in a flower shop, caring for her ailing grandma, and ultimately, flipping houses. Along the way, Sara and Emilie's paths intersect at various points when they need love, hope, and connection most. Overall: 4.5
Characters: The two central characters in the book are Emilie and Sara. We get the time to sink deeply into their worlds as individuals before we see them come together as a couple as their stories both start around the age of 14 and carry on until they're 28. Much of the contours of their childhood narratives flesh out the trauma that molds them into the adults they become. We watch Sara fight for her life to make it to LA with a stranger who becomes her best friend and then goes back to being a stranger again. And we see Emilie move rudderless through early adulthood, falling into an affair with a married man, originally to boost her self esteem but ultimately destroying it further.
While Sara has firmly cultivated her present, she's still haunted by her past. Her first love that died, her mother's passing, her dealer father, and the brother that wouldn't leave with her. Over the course of the 14 years since leaving Northern California, Sara is forced to confront the unanswered questions of her past time and time again to work towards healing.
Emilie has become quiet, passive, and lost because of her childhood. While she doesn't quite know how to have a good relationship with her sister like she craves, Emilie's struggles are more rooted in the present day. She's changed her major more times than she can count and watched her life stall out as classes and classes of students graduated without her. Then she floats aimlessly towards random jobs, never quite finding the right fit or getting close and having it ruined. Emilie is forced to dig deep to find an anchor in adult life and discover a calling that gives her purpose.
Though its a difficult road and they're still imperfect as ever, by the end of the novel, like all of us, they do show a tremendous amount of growth in a way that makes you sit and take it all in like an ocean wave crashing over you as you close the back cover.
Plot: The book covers a vast amount of ground given how many years of life it covers. The story almost feels told in vignettes, sampling glimpses of certain periods of time that represent the rest. This isn't the kind of book where you live and breathe every second with the characters, like many fiction novels. You have to trust that the peaks you're getting are truly the most important points.
LaCour does an incredible job of developing stakes not just in the book as a whole or a chapter but in the individual scenes that are blocked off within the chapter. There are constant questions to be answered and tiny consequences if they aren't. It keeps a book that is very literary and sometimes dark in feel moving quickly and effortlessly. I finished reading it in two days.
Writing: The book is told in a close third person where each chapter is told either from Sara or Emilie's point of view. While third person is always an awkward adjustment from my brain that is very first person oriented, I understand the use for a story that skips through time in the way it does. Each chapter is quite lengthy and broken up into scenes with large spaced sections between them. They felt less like traditional chapters and more like complete eras that the characters moved and developed through in parallel to one another.
At its heart, this is a story about two women who have an undeniable connection and find themselves together through so many phases of life, even when their connections are imperfect. But a large part of the story is mostly concerned with how they become the people that meet later on and understanding their motivations, hesitancies, and hang-ups that might feel opaque without the context of their teenage lives.
I have to say that this is the first novel that feels a part of the literary fiction category that I've truly been able to connect with and enjoy. If you like Sally Rooney novels and dynamics but wished the characters actually discussed and displayed emotion, you'll feel at home with this novel. Emotion and understanding is truly prized before everything else, and there was a perfect amount of each ingredient of romance, family, and friendship to keep the story in realistic balance.
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