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REVIEW:  Yours to Keep by Serena Bell

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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DUAL REVIEW:  The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

DUAL REVIEW: The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

 

It is a time of celebration in the Pingkang li, where imperial scholars and bureaucrats mingle with beautiful courtesans. At the center is the Lotus Palace, home of the most exquisite courtesans in China…

Maidservant Yue-ying is not one of those beauties. Street-smart and practical, she’s content to live in the shadow of her infamous mistress—until she meets the aristocratic playboy Bai Huang.

Bai Huang lives in a privileged world Yue-ying can barely imagine, let alone share, but as they are thrown together in an attempt to solve a deadly mystery, they both start to dream of a different life. Yet Bai Huang’s position means that all she could ever be to him is his concubine— will she sacrifice her pride to follow her heart?

The Lotus Palace by Jeannie LinJayne:I don’t think we’ve ever dual reviewed a Lin novel and I was eager to see what you thought of her latest one. “The Lotus Palace” is almost two books in one. It’s a love story between two people of vastly differing social backgrounds as well as a murder mystery. The romance worked fairly well for me but the mystery didn’t grab my attention as much as I might have wished.

Sunita: I really enjoyed your review of her previous book, The Sword Dancer, so it’s great to do this one together! I agree that the mystery wasn’t particularly unusual, and by the end I didn’t really care whodunit, but the setting and the romance were so appealing to me, especially as events unfolded in the second half, that I was really caught up in the different aspects of the book.

Jayne: One thing I can always count on when reading her work is that I will almost effortlessly learn a lot. Details, large and small, are seamlessly woven into the narrative and I never feel as if I’m being force fed every little thing she learned during her research. Recently I read something on the BBC website about the difficulty of the exams Chinese scholars who sought government positions had to face. In the struggles of Bai Huang, I can see this come to life. 20+ years later, I still remember the grueling study schedules my accounting major sorority sisters set for themselves in order to pass the CPA exam but I don’t think they had anything on what Bai Huang endures – for the fourth time. It’s too bad that women couldn’t have taken it as his sister Wei-Wei looks like she would have aced the test the first go round.

Sunita: Wei-Wei is a terrific character; she starts out as the stereotypical cute younger sister but you realize quickly what Bai Huang knows, that she is very smart and very focused. She accepts that she can’t be a scholar the way a man can, but she still manages to use her talents.

The setting is so richly realized, even more so than in The Sword Dancer, whose worldbuilding I thought was excellent. I agree that there is no sense of infodumping, just the careful evocation of a community and its geographical and political context. Because of that, the first half of the book was a bit slow-moving for me. We learn about the Pinkang li, the quarter where the courtesans live, and we get to know the inhabitants and customers of the Lotus Palace. What I like about this approach is that by the time the romance really gets going, we know Yue-ying and Bai Huang as individuals, so we’re rooting for a happy ending because they really fit together, not because they are each the other’s designated Beloved Object.

Jayne:The Historical Undone novella “Capturing the Silken Thief” introduced me to the world of Tang Dynasty courtesans and the people who worked with them. “The Lotus Palace” takes this many steps further and is a full-on immersion into this environment. Yue-ying lives in the background of this pleasure palace. She and her mistress Mingyu were sold into this life and share a bond no outsider understands. Yue-ying knows how lucky she is to have been redeemed from being a common prostitute in a brothel even if her marked face disqualifies her from the heights that Mingyu has reached.

I enjoyed reading about Yue-ying. She’s practical, hardworking and doesn’t stand for any nonsense from Bai Huang. She serves as his introduction to the world of these servant girls and teaches him some respect for those who aren’t rich and privileged. This is actually my favorite aspect of the book. An experience in Bai Huang’s past has already stripped away the veneer of the beautiful illusion the courtesans project but meeting Yue-ying makes him truly see the harsh reality behind the glitter.

Sunita: Yue-ying is a terrific character. She’s been dealt a very tough hand, but she’s neither downtrodden nor feisty. She accepts the world as it has been made for her and she appreciates the good things in her life. Her relationship with Mingyu (who is another nuanced, interesting character) is clearly more than just courtesan-servant, but we don’t find out precisely what it is until the second half of the book. Yue-ying is understandably unromantic, but she’s also loving and interested in the world around her.

Jayne: One thing I loved was Yue-ying’s visits to the local temple including stopping to see an ancient (I assume) sea turtle who lives there.

Sunita: I did too, and it’s typical of Lin’s approach that was seems like a trivial interlude featuring the turtle turns out to be important, both in showing us a side of Yue-ying and to the plot. As for our hero, Bai Huang is clearly more than he at first appears, but I wasn’t sure exactly how he would turn out. In the second half of the book I realized that he fit a common historical romance archetype: the under-achieving aristocratic eldest son who has failed to live up to expectations but wants to do better. But he wasn’t predictable in this story because his background and context meant that his family interactions, his parents’ expectations, and his own choices were identifiably Chinese, not British or even generically Western. It’s a great example of how a little-used cultural context provides a palette of character motivations and actions that is the same in some ways and very different in others.

Jayne: Still, he’s a bit of the romantic in their growing relationship. She has to bring him back down to earth. It felt realistic that to her, sex would be devoid of emotion while he would get wrapped up the hearts and rainbows. And while her feelings changed more quickly than might be reasonable, I appreciate that Lin didn’t have one good sexual experience “cure” her. It took two. Oh, well.

Sunita: Those are really great points. The “bad sex” scene has the shape of other bad sex scenes in romance novels, but the particulars are all about these two characters. I admit I was also surprised at the relatively rapid transition, but by genre standards I suppose it’s not that fast.

Jayne: The roadblocks on the way to their HEA are formidable. He is of a renowned family of wealth and means. She is the daughter of a poor farmer who sold her. His family has already arranged a marriage for him and she resists becoming his concubine because she’s already been owned in the past and, now that she’s free, she’ll never submit to that again. As it got closer to the end of the book, I was biting my nails as I wondered how Lin would get them past this impossible impasse. A clever woman – yah! – saves the day. I hope she will get her own wonderful hero at some point.

Sunita: I honestly did not know how Lin was going to get this couple to an HEA. She laid the groundwork for why Yue-ying didn’t want to be a concubine so well that I launch into my usual “Oh, just go ahead, you’ll be set for life” lecture. Yes, there was a way to be a content woman as a concubine, but Yue-ying wasn’t going to be able to manage it, and neither would Bai Huang be able to play his part. And given that both she and Bai Huang knew that he wouldn’t be happy if he didn’t fulfill his family obligations, I didn’t see a way out. But there was, it was completely believable and, in retrospect, it was obvious.

Jayne: Yes, very obvious but very realistic and nothing that made me roll my eyes and think,”Oh, just go with it, Jayne!” As much as I enjoyed the romance though, the mystery didn’t work so well for me. It just didn’t make sense to me that Mingyu and Huilan, who had both been in this world of owned women for years, would have banded together over this one incident out of what surely must have been a similar background shared by many of these courtesans and prostitutes. The nitty gritty of solving the case didn’t differ from many mysteries I’ve already read and wasn’t as interesting to me as learning more about the Tang Dynasty.

Sunita: I don’t disagree with you at all on this, but I nevertheless went along with it. I didn’t have much of a sense of Huilan, but I felt that Mingyu had more intense emotions than she expressed, so her sudden decision seemed somewhat plausible. And while the procedural aspect was pretty standard, I liked the character of Constable Wu a great deal, especially his interactions with Yue-ying.

Jayne: The romance between a down-to-earth heroine and a more starry eyed hero “made” this book for me. The “how would she manage to get them together and solve the realistic conflict she’s set up” dilemma kept me glued to the story. The murder mystery – eh, not so much. I hope Wei-Wei will show up again in a future book and that we’ll see more of Yue-ying managing to keep Huang anchored and steady. B-

Sunita: I think that there are definitely readers who have similar reactions to yours, and I think you make a good argument for them. Nevertheless, when the romance started to really take off, and Yue-ying and Bai Huang had to balance their happiness at being together with the uncertainty of how they could have a future, I fell completely in love with this book. I think it’s in part because I deeply appreciated the way the context and the language reflected a more formal, hierarchical society while still showing the way romantic and familial love shaped people’s motivations and actions. It felt utterly authentic to me, and I don’t have that reaction very often. The way Lin took traditional romance archetypes and storylines and embedded them in an unfamiliar (for romance) context impressed me a lot. That’s probably why I find this to be her best book yet, and I expect that she will get even better. A-

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