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REVIEW: Yours to Keep by Serena Bell

Dear Serena Bell:

Despite the fact that the United States is experiencing its highest levels of immigration since the turn of the 19th/20th century, I rarely come across contemporary romance novels that feature immigrant protagonists. And given the controversial nature of immigration policy today, especially with respect to undocumented immigrants, I didn’t ever expect to see a main character from this particular group. So kudos to you for taking on this subject, in your debut novel no less. As someone who was for all intents and purposes an immigrant, is the daughter of an immigrant, and teaches immigration history and politics, there was no way I was going to pass on the chance to read this book. It wound up being a mixed bag for me, with some good parts and some pretty problematic parts.

[Note to readers: This is a long review, much longer than I usually write. There is a lot of stuff going on in this novel and I wanted to do justice to the different issues.]

Yours to Keep by Serena BellAna Travares is a smart, beautiful woman in her late twenties whose life is completely shaped by her residency status. She came to the United States when she was seven with her mother and older siblings. After her mother died of cancer less than two years after their arrival the children somehow managed to stay together, but with lapsed visas and no way to regularize their status, they spent the next 20 years living with the consequences of that situation. They continue to live together in a small apartment along with Ana’s niece and two nephews, and all the adults have jobs. Ana, although unable to go to college, has established a business of sorts, tutoring high school students in a wealthy suburb nearby and teaching ESL classes before and after work hours for other immigrants.

When the story begins, Ana’s tutoring job is in jeopardy because the sleazy new administrator at the high school is demanding that she show documentation of work status, including her social security number. Unlike many undocumented residents, Ana hasn’t taken the usual not-so-legal measures to acquire one, and she’s in the process of staving off the sleazebag’s harassing advances when they’re interrupted by our hero, Ethan Hansen. Ethan is a widower with a teenage son who desperately needs a Spanish tutor, and before you know it, Ana has a new client and she and Ethan are falling in lust.

I liked Ana’s character quite a bit. She’s carved out a life for herself despite the structural career limitations she faces, and she has a good relationship with her sister, Cara. She’s paranoid about having her status discovered (which is understandable), but she’s not apologizing for it all the time or completely cowed down by it. Although the book makes Ana’s residency status the central focus of her life, that choice doesn’t make her as one dimensional a character as she could have been. Her interactions with Theo are warm and realistic, and I enjoyed the glimpses into her home and work life.

Ethan, on the other hand, was much less appealing to me. He’s trying to be a good father to Theo and mostly succeeding, and we are shown that he is a conscientious pediatrician. But he doesn’t have much of a personality; he watches football and hangs out with his brother. There just wasn’t much there as far as he was concerned. I could see how someone in his position could seem appealing to Ana, but I didn’t see what made him individually so appealing that she overrode her own caution in his case. He felt very reactive and conventional to me, and while I can see how conventionality can be appealing to someone in a precarious position, it’s not a great characteristic for a leading man.

In addition, I found Ethan’s backstory hard to believe from his first appearance. A prosperous pediatrician and a single parent who is clearly devoted to his son, Ethan is somehow still unmarried after seven years. He has no visible support system to help him take care of Theo, and his very nice parents don’t make an appearance until the last quarter of the book. He’s that rare pediatrician who never seems to be on call. Generally, women either ignore him or are married and frustrated and therefore hit on him. Really? A nice doctor who teaches his son to put the toilet seat down isn’t appealing to non-predatory, non-frustrated women?

The lack of a support network is glaring in Ana’s case. Ana and her family have in their lives no other extended family members, no one from their home town in the Dominican Republic, no immigrant friends who are in a better legal and financial position than they are. This is despite the fact that Massachusetts, where the story is set, has the fourth largest Dominican population in the US. I understand that this setup is designed to throw the hero and heroine together, and it happens in a lot of romance novels, but in the case of these particular backstories it seems even more unrealistic than usual. Neither Ana nor Cara seem to have Dominican friends. Ana’s brother Ricky has one friend who may or may not deal drugs, and who may or may not be interested in Cara, but who is definitely somewhat thuggish. There is some thoughtful acknowledgment of intra-cultural race issues within the Dominican community, but that and a few recipes are about all we learn of Ana’s native culture.

Although the book is set in a major metropolitan area, there are very few immigrants woven into the story. The wealthy suburb where Ethan lives and Ana tutors apparently has no immigrants (undocumented or otherwise): no nannies, no cleaners, no yard help. This absence is especially surprised given the unflattering depictions of most of the wives and mothers Ethan interacts with; if they’re so bored, fashion-obsessed, and predatory, who’s doing the work of keeping their homes? The transnational nature of immigrant lives is completely absent from this narrative, too; no one calls family and friends in their home country, or sends money, or communicates in any other ways, despite the fact that Ana’s family must be relatively well off on her father’s side.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that no one apart from Ana is drawn with much depth or sympathy. The “villain” who sets Ana’s problems in motion is introduced briefly and he’s one-dimensional. The native-born supporting characters, even the ones who want to help Ana and her family, are portrayed as well-meaning but clueless. This would be OK if they didn’t turn out to be the people who provide Ana with the solutions to her problems. Ana’s character projects agency, but in the end she is bailed out by other people. The other undocumented people don’t have agency, and the characters who do have agency come across as not very competent, or oblivious to the problems of undocumented residents, or self-absorbed. This creates a disconnect between how the characters appear on page and what their roles in the plot are.

Back to the story: Ana and Ethan stave off their mutual attraction for a short time but then give in to it. The sex scenes are well written and advance the plot. Ethan is willing to have Ana stay over and get close to Theo awfully fast for someone who has steadfastly refused to do so for the previous seven years, but I went with it. But while their scenes together are engaging, I didn’t get a sense of what made them shift from lust to love. Their journey is complicated by Ana’s status and Ricky’s opposition to Ethan, which sets up the major conflict they have to overcome to get to their HEA. I haven’t run across any cases where an undocumented person’s family has been opposed to marriage to an eligible, professional citizen, but I suppose it’s possible. Equally implausibly, no one thinks that Ana might be taking advantage of Ethan for longer than about five minutes, even though the two have known each other for less than a month.

In the last third of the book the action ramps up and lands firmly in melodrama territory, then ends in a sugar-coma-inducing ending and epilogue. Neither was particularly believable, and the most melodramatic moment was telegraphed several times during the course of the plot. I could have lived with that, but what really bothered me was that all of the Dominican characters are saved by the white, native-born characters. Ethan saves Ana not once but twice, and for good measure he saves a couple of other members of her family (literally or financially). Everything that non-citizens in this story gain is through the largesse of the more fortunate US-born citizens around them. This portrayal does a disservice to the extent to which immigrants, legal or not, help themselves and each other.

There is also a recurring emphasis on how Ana and her family became undocumented that made me uncomfortable, and I’m pretty sure it’s incorrect to boot. I’ll put it under a spoiler cut because the information dribbles out over the course of the book and the final portrait that emerges comes quite late. And I probably go on about immigration issues for much longer than most readers are interested in, so click at your own peril.

[spoiler] Ana and other characters repeatedly stress that the family arrived with valid visas but then overstayed those visas, failed to renew them, and lost their status. The failure to renew is attributed to Ana’s mother’s illness and death. There are a number of problems with this explanation. First, it implies that coming on a legal visa and overstaying is somehow more legitimate than arriving without valid visas. But it doesn’t matter how children acquire their undocumented status; they’re children at the mercy of adult decisions, and they shouldn’t be treated as culpable whether they overstay or walk across the border, whether they lose legal status or never had it in the first place. That’s one of the key points of the DREAM Act, that children shouldn’t be punished for adult behavior (despite being set around 2010, the book never refers to any of the current immigration controversies or legislative efforts).

As for overstaying v. arriving without documentation, I’m very glad to see overstaying highlighted here, because many people assume all undocumented residents crossed a border without proper visas, but overstaying isn’t ethically superior to crossing. They’re both the same kind of legal violation, and they’re treated much the same way.

Second, the explanation for lapse of status doesn’t work. Ana tells Ethan that they came on derivative visas because her father was coming to the US to take a position as a college professor. They came first and waited, but their father never came, changing his mind and abandoning the family. But if he never showed up, his visa (most likely an H1-B), would have been revoked and his family would have had to return to the Dominican Republic. Their visas would only have been valid on the condition that he took the job, a condition that was never fulfilled. Therefore, they didn’t have a legal right to stay in the US without Ana’s father. If they intended to conform to the law (and the book is implicitly praising them for this), they should have returned in the first few months, well before Ana’s mother’s illness.

Finally, spouses on derivative visas cannot legally work in the US (except under very specific conditions that don’t appear to have been met in this case). So how did they support themselves for the year or so that they were in the US before Ana’s mother became ill? And why did no one come and take them home when they were all alone, especially since Ricky, the eldest and the de facto head of the family, was unhappy and having trouble adjusting? They couldn’t get in touch with their father, but they had other relatives and given their father’s profession, other relatives were unlikely to be so poor as to be unable to help.

[/spoiler]

There are also some throwaway lines that made me flinch. More than once Ethan comments on Ana’s excellent English, in terms of both her facility with the language and her accent.

With her voice, creamy calm and cool, containing only the slightest trace of her native island, the slightest hint that English was not the only language she’d ever known.

Hello, she’s been in the US since she was seven. It’s not a huge accomplishment to be fluent in a language you’re educated in and surrounded by. This is the kind of thing well-meaning but oblivious people say to immigrants all the time. At one point Ethan realizes how prejudiced he sounds:

What was wrong with him that he hadn’t put the pieces together? It was the power of denial, that’s what it was. And, he admitted, the skill with which she spoke English. People like her—God, had he thought those words?—were supposed to be barely bilingual. Barely literate. Not articulate, not skilled teachers, not well read. His prejudices had snared him.

At least he realizes those are prejudices, and presumably he realizes he is wrong about what “people like her” are like. But at the end of the book he’s doing it again:

“You’re beautiful and funny and sexy, and you have a better grasp of English than people I’ve known who’ve been speaking it their whole lives.”

Enough already.

I should add that there is quite a bit of Spanish sprinkled throughout the book, but since I don’t speak Spanish I can’t evaluate whether it was accurate or not.

I might have been able to recommend the book if the romance had been stronger. But while Ana was appealing, Ethan didn’t have much going for him, and hot sex scenes can’t make up for a drip of a hero. Grade: C-/D+

~ Sunita

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Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Jordan Castillo Price, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley.

34 Comments

  1. LeeF
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 12:29:06

    Recently Dabney at AAR had an interesting interview with Serena Bell about this book. Sorry I can’t capture the link on my tablet.

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  2. mari
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 12:32:07

    Oh this sounds so wrong on so many levels. What a pity. I would love to read a real immigrant experience romance. The only thing I can say regarding the Dream Act is that of course children should not suffer because their parents brought them here illegaly. Which is why they should go home to their country of origin. It is not “lack of documentation” or “the government”that makes one illegal, but conscious decisions made to either obey the law…or not. In this their case, the parents’ decisions’ to bring them here illegally has brought about their current situations. I fail to see why the American people are obligated to correct the mistakes made by their parents. I only bring this up because the Dream Act is spoken of in such nice, sympathetic tones in this posting
    and I get more than a little sick of the liberal, academic bias permeating the romance blogosphere.

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  3. Ani Gonzalez
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 12:41:26

    Sounds interesting. I definitely have to pick this up. It sounds like the author knows enough about DR to build a realistic plot. I’m very curious as to why they stayed in the U.S. if their father is a college professor. That would make them at least middle class (and probably upper middle class) in DR. Was the mom fleeing domestic abuse?

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  4. Suleikha Snyder
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 12:49:01

    @mari:

    I don’t understand how you can ask for “real immigrant experience romance” and yet so coldly dismiss real immigrant experiences. It is not all stepping off the boat into the beatific light of the Statue of Liberty. It IS, frequently, about bureaucratic red tape. And “going home” is irrelevant to kids who’ve grown up here and would no more be at home in the DR or Southeast Asia than you would if someone dropped you there.

    Stories about these experiences, blog posts about these experiences, need to entail a lot more than just cookie-cutter, perfect tales of assimilation…most of which are more fantastical than your average PNR anyway. Immigration and naturalization is a complex issue that needs complex study in books and on the Internet. That’s not a “liberal bias” at play.

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  5. Sirius
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 12:53:13

    Thanks for the great review – the stuff under cut was frustrating for me.

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  6. Ros
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 12:55:19

    @mari: ” of course children should not suffer because their parents brought them here illegaly. Which is why they should go home to their country of origin.”

    Wow. Just, wow.

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  7. Liz
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 13:07:28

    @mari: “The only thing I can say regarding the Dream Act is that of course children should not suffer because their parents brought them here illegaly. Which is why they should go home to their country of origin. It is not “lack of documentation” or “the government”that makes one illegal, but conscious decisions made to either obey the law…or not.”

    So you’re saying that children are making conscious decisions about their immigration status? Because that seems unlikely. And sending a child “home” to a country that hasn’t been his/her home in who knows how long is an humane and reasonable response? That’s a rather sad world view.

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  8. Rose
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 13:16:02

    It’s too bad that this one didn’t work for you, Sunita, at least on paper it does seem promising. I’d love to see more books that explore immigrant experiences as well as other cross-cultural issues. So many contemporary romances seem to manufacture conflict where none exists, or drag out fairly minor conflicts. Meanwhile, navigating the difficulties that immigrants face (or other people adjusting to a new culture for various reasons) is definitely something that could set up a lot of believable and interesting challenges for romance characters.

    @mari:
    What Suleikha, Ros and Liz said. I was never an immigrant, but I spent some years in another country when I was growing up, and I know people who were immigrants at some point in their lives. Cross-cultural moves and adjustments are tough, and they probably become more so as one gets older. What was once a child’s “country of origin” may now be a place that they have few links with. You might believe that what you suggest is not punishing children for what their parents did, but I think you are very much mistaken in this.

    If you “get more than a little sick of the liberal, academic bias permeating the romance blogosphere”, perhaps you should start a blog to reflect your values, rather than expect other readers to fall in line with your views.

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  9. Arethusa
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 13:26:22

    @mari: “I fail to see why the American people are obligated to correct the mistakes made by their parents.”

    For example: people are often fleeing tumultuous situations the American government played an active role in creating. It’s really not as cut and dried as you’d like to present it.

    Anyway, Sunita, I am sorry the book didn’t work out. Despite the flaws you mentioned I was still willing to give it a try until you mentioned the protests against marriage to the well-off, exemplary citizen. LOL. I couldn’t take it seriously after that.

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  10. Sunita
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 13:44:40

    @mari:

    It is not “lack of documentation” or “the government”that makes one illegal, but conscious decisions made to either obey the law…or not.

    That is incorrect. Whether or not a person is legally permitted to be in a particular territory is entirely dependent on the rule of law of that country, and the rule of law is administered by the relevant government institutions. A child (or anyone) who is unable by law or fact to make a “conscious decision” to obey a law … or not, is still in a legal or illegal situation on the basis of the legality of her documentation.

    I only bring this up because the Dream Act is spoken of in such nice, sympathetic tones in this posting

    My feelings about the Dream Act, which are based on scholarly analysis and teaching of it since it was first introduced, are neither nice nor sympathetic. The goals of the Dream Act as presented in this review are factually correct and reflect the stated positions of supporters; the latter group includes both Republicans and Democrats.

    I get more than a little sick of the liberal, academic bias permeating the romance blogosphere.

    Well, I did put the academic stuff under the spoiler cut and warn readers what they were likely to find. So, caveat reader and all that.

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  11. Isobel Carr
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 13:44:52

    Having seen friends go through what it takes to normalize the status of a partner who was here illegally, I can’t imagine I’d find the ending satisfying or plausible. It’s such an ugly and brutal process, frequently involving long separations and almost impossible hurdles to resolve (one friend ended up moving to Italy where he had dual citizenship and could legally take his wife because three years after her returning to her home country, where she hadn’t lived since was two, they still couldn’t get her a green card).

    Hell, just marrying a foreigner abroad and trying to bring them home can be a nightmare! Took another friend forever to get the wife he met and married while living abroad a green card. They barely squeaked in in time to get their kid into kindergarten and they started the process when the baby was a newborn.

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  12. Sunita
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 13:52:07

    @LeeF: Here’s the link. I read the interview and was intrigued too, although I was a little concerned because the author seemed to get more information from people who worked with immigrants than the immigrants themselves. I sympathize with the problem; if you’re an outsider to the situation it can be hard to talk to people about these kinds of fraught issues.

    @Ani Gonzalez: There was nothing about that in the book, although the father was not a great individual. The Dominican parts were accurate in some ways, but in others (especially the extent to which there is back-and-forth and the size of the community) it felt off. There’s some excellent research on the Dominican community in greater Boston, where the novel is set.

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  13. Sunita
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 14:01:31

    @Suleikha Snyder: There are so many different immigrant experiences (as I know you know). Some are horrendous, some are close to the fairy-tale Ellis-Island experience that we create nostalgic memories from. It’s a huge and diverse topic, and it’s such rich material for storytelling, especially in the romance genre (because there’s falling in love with the country, too). And I agree completely; these issues don’t break down in neat liberal/conservative dimensions (even though our polarized political environment suggests they do at the moment).

    @Sirius: I think you can imagine how I was tearing my hair out about that. ;)

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  14. Ani Gonzalez
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 14:04:28

    Thanks for the link. I found the interview with the author very interesting. Specially the part where she describes the kind of marriages that ICIS considers credible. She did a lot of research so kudos to her.

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  15. Sunita
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 14:10:37

    @Rose: I would love to see more novels. There have been some great films in the past: Hester Street, El Norte, and of course Lone Star. I don’t know if the tendency to expect immigrants to write immigrant-centered lit fic affects the output, either.

    @Arethusa: That’s not a big part of the story, it was just an irritant! I’d definitely give the sample a try. While I can’t recommend it generally, I think people who are interested in the topic would find it worth at least checking it out. I really *want* books on this subject to succeed.

    @Isobel Carr: As I said to Suleikha, experiences range across the spectrum. Some people have a terrible time bringing in spouses or getting visas (even after marriage), others find it almost pro forma. I know of at least two cases of long-term undocumented residents who married citizens and went through the visa process very quickly.

    A colleague at a different university was forced to spend two years in his home country because the (prestigious, full-of-lawyers) university he was at screwed up his paperwork. He made lemons from lemonade by doing fieldwork and writing an award-winning book but it wasn’t how he’d intended to do it!

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  16. Liz Mc2
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 14:14:39

    I can’t comment on this book, because I haven’t read it. But a number of the things you discuss in the review–such as the relative social isolation of both hero and heroine, and the way the hero keeps rescuing the heroine–remind me of other romance novels I’ve read that deal with characters and subject matter outside the “norm” of romance (disabled protagonists, people of color, even just characters who are not middle class or above). It often seems to me that authors who have pushed one boundary, by dealing with people/issues romance often ignores, are then unwilling, or unable, or don’t think about, pushing other boundaries.

    So you get a lot of familiar tropes and conventions (like isolation and rescue) that normally might not bother me much, or I might not even notice, but in the new context they can seem highly unrealistic or troubling for various reasons. To me, the point of new characters and new subject matter is telling new kinds of stories, but too often I haven’t found that to be the case, with disappointing results. In the interview linked above, they discuss the basic trope of the story as being similar to lord/housemaid or “I married the nanny.” I’ve enjoyed historicals and category romances with those tropes, but in *this* context I found that language troubling, and I’d certainly want the author to think about the implications of telling a Cinderella-type story about an undocumented immigrant. What’s the effect of eliding some of the realities you point out in your review?

    Thanks for the context you provided here.

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  17. Jane
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 14:20:23

    @Sunita: I think one thing that stood out for me in the interview was that she assumed that all those people she talked to were undocumented.

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  18. SusanS
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 14:25:06

    I have to respectfully disagree with the review. I found this to be an enjoyable romance and appreciated the author’s attempt to highlight the issue of undocumented immigrants within a romance novel format. I admired Ethan’s attempts to connect with his teenage son and felt that was where Ana showed the most agency and initiative in helping father and son develop a stronger relationship. Was it a hard-hitting, gritty realistic expose of a national problem? No, but within the established tropes I thought it was successful, and it made me pause and think about the challenges of making a life for yourself in a country where you can’t get a good job, a driver’s license, or a college degree.

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  19. Sunita
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 14:31:08

    @Ani Gonzalez: I agree she did a lot of research, and there were a lot of things that rang true. Those may have made the things that didn’t stand out to me.

    I will say that her depiction of ICIS’s view of appropriate and less appropriate marriages doesn’t quite conform to my own knowledge. They definitely care, but I wouldn’t say that someone like Ricky would necessarily have a hard time getting his marriage approved. There are lots of legal immigrants in this country, after all.

    @Jane: Yeah, I wondered if that was because those were who her contacts found for her. I was also surprised that she was surprised at how many undocumented immigrants there are, since every time immigration policy comes up it’s one of the big points made.

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  20. Sunita
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 14:33:19

    @SusanS: Thanks for commenting, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I really wanted to like it more than I did, and I’m sure my personal and professional stake in the topic affected how I read it.

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  21. Sunita
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 14:42:31

    @Liz Mc2: It’s interesting that you bring up the disability-in-romance issue, because as I was reading this I felt as if I were reading that type of story. The way Ethan was sooo thrilled at how not-immigrant-like she was felt like the way people praise disabled characters for being like everyone else.

    The cross-class thing was a bit strange because Ana’s status made her more than just working-class, it made her on the outside of the legal system. This gave Ethan potential power over her that was never fully dealt with in the novel; of course the reader is supposed to know he wouldn’t turn her in, but he had that ability, just like a lord of the manor has legal power over a maid. Indeed, Ana had *less* standing than a nanny/governess in a historical, because she didn’t come from a solid background. That huge power differential (over not just her but her family) wasn’t well explored, which may have been why his King Cophetua turn at the end of the book sat so badly with me. I wanted either to be convinced of a love so transcendent it didn’t matter, or a realistic, thorough exploration of how that differential hung over their relationship.

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  22. Janine
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 14:47:33

    Great review. I’m tempted to purchase the book, even though I’m torn about reading it, because Ana sounds like a well-drawn character and because I’d love to read more romances about immigrants, both legal and illegal.

    About your spoiler:

    [spoiler] My family came to the US so my dad could do his post-doc work here. He was here on some kind of H visa but our visas were different. His work was legal but my mother could not legally work here at all. So that part of the story would be jarring for me as well.[/spoiler]

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  23. Isobel Carr
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 15:15:42

    @Sunita:

    I know of at least two cases of long-term undocumented residents who married citizens and went through the visa process very quickly.

    It can be pretty straight forward for people who overstayed a visa and can prove they originally entered the country legally (which may what the author was going for), but if they entered the country illegally and have been here more than a year, they can’t even apply for a green card until they return to their country of origin and doing so triggers an automatic bar on reentry for 3-10 years (yes, there’s a waiver you can apply for, but almost no one gets one).

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  24. Sunita
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 15:38:52

    @Janine: Yes, I think my familiarity with that restriction made it stand out to me. Others are likely not to notice or care.

    @Isobel Carr: Yes, you’re right, that must be what the author was trying to signal, because she kept talking about “adjustment of status.” Marriage to a citizen is one of the few conditions in which overstaying a valid visa v. entering unlawfully makes a difference in how the government treats you. But because it kept coming up every time Ana talked about her circumstances (she almost always referred to it as “status”) it sounded to me as if she was trying to make the case that she was not in violation in the same way other undocumented immigrants are. At one point Ethan even tells his son that her illegal status is a technicality. Which I guess is true, but 20 years is a long-term technicality, and it’s not ethically superior to having been illegal the whole time (in my opinion), it just gives you a much easier road if you are marrying a citizen or green card holder.

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  25. Ducky
    Nov 13, 2013 @ 21:29:22

    You used to be able to get “Adjustment Of Status” fairly easily as long as you had entered the US legally (even with just a tourist visa that ran out) as long as you had no criminal record and your marriage to an American citizen was considered “real”. It was a matter of a fairly short interview where you provided valid documentation and then they would stamp your passport “status adjusted on so and so date” and then like 4 weeks later you would get your 10 year green card in the mail. I know for a fact that was the case in the early nineties.

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  26. CD
    Nov 14, 2013 @ 01:42:13

    I enjoyed this book a lot more than Sunita did while agreeing with her most of her issues with it. To me, it’s not only a book worth getting simply due to its subject matter (although I’d be down with that) but I’d actually recommend it as a fun read that’s also thought-provoking – particularly for those who haven’t been exposed to immigration issues before.

    On its problems, yes, I was slightly uncomfortable with the lack of local community around Ana and her family, and especially the complete lack of ties with the DR. From personal experience, as a first (or even second) generation immigrant there’s no way you would have no contact whatsoever with your country of origin- no grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles?! The DR is not Europe – extended families mean something there. And I did thoroughly disliked how the book seemed to go overboard in presenting Ana as completely “American”. As in the UK, I imagine in the US it is possible (and even more so thinking of the history) to feel both proudly American and still culturally Dominican. Ana’s character is not unrealistic in her lack of attachment to Dominican culture, but the novel is framed in such a way that that lack is a way of her being more “American” and therefore more deserving of legal status. So yeah, unfortunate implications…

    However, this book was written as a category romance book and explicitly as a Cinderella romance at that – it’s not written as a hard hitting and realistic expose on the lives and loves of undocumented migrants. So yes, we have the trope of the downtrodden heroine saved by the prince on a white horse. Personally, it’s not my favourite trope but I get the appeal and have enjoyed Cinderella stories in the past. To me, it seems pointless to criticise a romance book for following a well established romance trope – power differentials and all.

    And unlike Sunita, I actually didn’t have any problems with Ethan. Yes, he’s a little bland but most normal middle class people outside romance novels are – he’s not a Navy SEAL/cop/FBI agent suffering from PTSD or a commitment-phobe man-slut – thank God for that. He’s a decent father, committed professional and has a close family (I especially loved the scenes he had with his brother) so what’s not to like? He’s not someone I’d go for personally but I could see how his stability and conventionality would be appealing to Ana. His comment on her language fluency did set my teeth on edge but I just read it as part of his general white boy cluelessness, and it’s certainly realistic – as the daughter of immigrants but who was born and educated in the UK, I still hear compliments on how well I speak English…

    To come back to the main point, I feel that the author was trying to do something a bit different while still remaining true to romance novel conventions, and I do think she did a fair job at that. Yes, the conventional relationship is a bit bland and there are some problematic issues with the way the novel is framed, but I’m hoping that this is just a first introductory foray. If Serena Bell does write romances for Ana’s siblings (which she’s hinted she would), they will by necessity be less conventional – and I, for one, can’t wait!

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  27. Sunita
    Nov 14, 2013 @ 08:46:25

    @Ducky: It’s more difficult for all kinds of immigration policy issues since 9/11, but I’m also familiar with recent cases that are in line with your example. So, just repeating myself here, there’s a lot of variation in the immigrant experience.

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  28. Sunita
    Nov 14, 2013 @ 08:58:30

    @CD: Thanks for much for commenting and offering an alternative take on the book. I think there are likely to be plenty of readers who will share your reactions.

    I just want to comment on one point, since it’s come up a couple of times: I was not looking for this book to provide a “hard hitting and realistic expose” of immigrant issues. It’s a romance novel and I went into it with romance-novel expectations. As someone who owns the complete works of Betty Neels and regularly reads Harlequin Presents, I’m happy to find fantasy setups and resolutions in my romance novels. But I do think that when a book consciously sets out to depict the everyday lives of people who are stigmatized, or at best imperfectly understood, by the larger society, it has a responsibility to avoid major pitfalls and stereotypes. Even though I liked Ana’s character, I was dismayed because she was defined by her undocumented status (in much the way a disabled character is defined by her disability, or a minority character is defined by her race/ethnicity). That, coupled with her lack of agency, was a real problem for me. The vast majority of immigrants are enmeshed in networks and help themselves and each other. When a novel has all the immigrant characters “saved” by the well-off white citizens, that’s something I don’t want to see endorsed or repeated in other books. It does none of us any good, and it reiterates a very problematic stereotype.

    You’re absolutely right that this is a Cinderella story. This is not my favorite trope, so I was undoubtedly not the most receptive reader. But I also think that the Cinderella trope is especially fraught when Cinderella is a member of a disadvantaged or historically stigmatized group. It’s too easy for Prince Charming to be the stand-in for all the majority-group readers and turn Cinderella into a passive receptacle for noblesse oblige. Ethan’s everyday qualities made this even stronger here, in my opinion.

    That said, you make some great points and I really appreciate you chiming in.

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  29. Sunita
    Nov 14, 2013 @ 09:04:50

    @mari: A quick followup comment to your statement that immigrant children “should go home to their country of origin.”

    That great champion of the liberal, academic viewpoint, the Wall Street Journal, just reported the latest opinion poll on US attitudes toward illegal immigration. The vast majority of respondents (74 percent) do NOT think undocumented immigrants “should be forced to leave the country.” And that’s their attitude for all undocumented immigrants, so the number who think children should be forced to leave is almost certainly even lower. It may be a popular opinion on cable infotainment channels and talk radio (I’ve certainly heard it there), but it’s not a popular opinion among the American people.

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  30. CD
    Nov 14, 2013 @ 11:22:10

    @Sunita:

    “The vast majority of immigrants are enmeshed in networks and help themselves and each other. When a novel has all the immigrant characters “saved” by the well-off white citizens, that’s something I don’t want to see endorsed or repeated in other books. It does none of us any good, and it reiterates a very problematic stereotype.”

    I understood completely where you are coming from, Sunita. There is an all-pervasive narrative in mainstream media of viewing the marginalised as victims needing to be saved by rich (and generally) white benefactors – which denies them of both their own agency and, in a real sense, their essential humanity. And I can imagine that if you’ve (I assume) spent years in your day job having to deal with that sort of rubbish, to encounter it in a book you’re reviewing can be a mite frustrating.

    But regarding YOURS TO KEEP, I actually don’t think that that is what Serena Bell has done – or at least it doesn’t come across like that to me. I think there are issues with the framing of the story and, although I understand why she did it, the use of the Cinderella trope is problematic from a macro level at the very least. But on a more micro level, the characters of Ana and even Cara and Ricky come across as nothing less than fully human – with all that implies in terms of agency. Although they are, as mentioned, rather unbelievably isolated in terms of community/familial support, the family don’t come across as victims. And regarding “white people charging in on their trusty steeds” – I think it’s actually made fairly clear that their well-meaning but incredibly indiscreet blumberings actually landed Ana in the mess that she was in at the very beginning. With Ethan being portrayed the way he was, I got why he wanted and needed Ana (even if it was a bit too fast for believability) – it wasn’t just him being a white knight rescuing a damsel in distress.

    But yes, there’s enough that is problematic in the story that I can still see your point, romance novel and all. And if this is an issue dear to your heart, it’s less easy to shrug off its weaknesses with a jaunty “hey, it’s just a Cinderella story”…

    PS. One of the reasons why I’m defending this book is because I desperately want more books like this to be written, and I do think that Serena Bell shows promise. Yes, this book is pretty conventional, but I understand her reasons why she made that decision – and she was quite clear that it was a conscious decision in her interview on AAR. I’ll be really excited to see if she writes, for example, romances for Cara or Ricky which would have to be a lot less conventional and therefore more interesting.

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  31. Ridley
    Nov 14, 2013 @ 11:45:55

    One of the reasons why I’m defending this book is because I desperately want more books like this to be written

    I haven’t read this book and I’m not an immigrant, but I am disabled. Disability is rare in romance and I want to see more of it very badly. What I don’t want more of, however, are stories written by privileged authors (white, cis, non-disabled, straight, middle-class) where marginalized experiences are used to reinforce stereotyped narratives. That kind of inclusion is worse than erasure.

    If you liked the book, you liked the book. But I’m picking up a strain of “I don’t want to discourage authors from writing about this by criticizing the portrayal too harshly” in your argument, and I can’t agree with it. It’s not good enough to just write about marginalized populations, authors need to challenge the stereotypes and tell the truth. The only way this will happen is through critical discussion.

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  32. Cassie Knight
    Nov 14, 2013 @ 14:06:40

    I agree with Ridley: “If you liked the book, you liked the book. But I’m picking up a strain of “I don’t want to discourage authors from writing about this by criticizing the portrayal too harshly” in your argument, and I can’t agree with it. It’s not good enough to just write about marginalized populations, authors need to challenge the stereotypes and tell the truth. The only way this will happen is through critical discussion.”

    While authors look for suspension of disbelief, when authors choose to tackle such controverisal subjects, they should be held to higher standards. It’s not enough to say it’s fiction or just a light read or whatever. The author made a choice to include an unregistered immigrant and that’s great but she should get it right as she possibly can and like Ridley says, challenge the sterotypes. Or at least be consistent with them. Ethan recognizes what he’s doing then goes right back and does it again.

    Wee, readers, should expect her and other authors to get it right.

    That’s part of the problem overall–readers are too forgiving at times and we’ll accept unpolished work, stereotypes, trope filled books, illogical characterization and story plots when we should be more respecting of our time and money and requesting, no demanding, authors work harder and not excuse: age, newbie, or situation–all things I constantly see noted when someone disagrees with a book. Oh, don’t criticize her, this is her first book. Or she’s young, or….

    Until readers stop accepting these excuses by buying these authors, we will continue to get books that don’t work at this level (outside personal tastes).

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  33. Brie
    Nov 14, 2013 @ 14:17:20

    To echo what @Ridley said: we are critical because we want to see improvement.

    The worry that criticism will prevent authors from writing similar stories sounds a bit like a veiled threat to silence criticism. Our expectation is for authors to do a better job next time, not for them to stop doing the job altogether.

    I didn’t finish the book because I too found it problematic and at times downright offensive (for example: Ethan judgmental attitude towards stay-at-home moms or “bored, desperate mommies” as he calls them). Pointing out harmful content and inaccurate portrayals is an important part of critical discussion and integral to the betterment of the stories we all want to see more of.

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  34. Sunita
    Nov 14, 2013 @ 15:05:12

    @CD: If characters can be both fully human and still embody stereotypes, I think that’s what happened with all three. Ana is a straight-haired, light-skinned, acculturated Latina who feels more attachment to the US than to the DR. That is entirely plausible. But her siblings are both dark-skinned, kinky-haired, less acculturated, less educated, and have lower levels of achievement. I wish those traits hadn’t been allocated that way, because it reinforces pernicious stereotypes. But in the end, I think I would have forgiven a lot of the problematic issues (for good or ill on my part) if I had found the romance more satisfying. You liked Ethan, and I think that made a big difference (because we’re not really disagreeing over the flaws, just their relative importance). I was frustrated and annoyed by Ethan, so the book wasn’t satisfying as a romance, and that made the other aspects stand out more.

    I absolutely agree that we need more books with a focus on minority and underrepresented characters. But while I’m happy to give points for taking on the topic, I still have to evaluate the story on how well it executes what it sets out to do.

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