An emotional debut adult novel by a well-known YA author
Don’t go into this book expecting a romance novel. While there’s a romantic arc, Yerba Buena is more about finding oneself than finding true love, even if that too is part of the journey. As a consequence, the MCs don’t spend that much time on page together for a significant part of the book. Their stories are told as flowing parallels, intersecting here and there, where life takes them. The blurb is slightly misleading in that regard.
At sixteen, after tragedy struck, Sara Foster left home and made her way to L.A. Ten years later, she’s a sought-after bartender, content with her present, still battling the past. Emilie Dubois is in her sixth year as an undergraduate, her fifth major, trying hard to finally move on. She gets a job arranging flowers, leading her to her parents’ favourite restaurant, Yerba Buena.
Sadness and tragedy permeate the story, choose your moment to read it. It will be worth your time. When we first meet Emilie as an adult, she’s not unhappy but life happens to her rather than her living it. When she engages in an affair with the owner of the restaurant, she’s not deciding to, it just happens. Her first night with Sara ends up in an unexpected and unwelcomed way that changes how she wants to live and from then on, she works on taking control and making choices. Her relationship with her family, especially with her sister, is really interesting, as is the way she claims her Creole roots and tries to keep them alive.
Unlike Emilie, Sara found her passion at a young age but her journey into adulthood was heartbreaking and opening up doesn’t come easily to her. Both women are resilient and relatable and so very human, with flaws and fears and hopes. Both have witnessed first-hand the damages addiction can cause and have had their lives impacted. Both mention the novel Passing by Nella Larsen (which has now been turned into a movie by Rebecca Hall, available on Netflix, with Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga), a book that means different things to either of them, bringing them together because or despite their differences.
The writing is at once simple and poetic, with pace variations conveying mood changes and beautiful turns of phrases. Yerba Buena was my first narration by Julia Whelan, and I enjoyed it, even if it felt a tad too melodramatic at times (the story speaks for itself, it doesn’t need too heavy a tone on top of it). But apart from this, the narration is excellent, the voices are good, fitting and easy to differentiate, the rhythm flows.
After Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake, Yerba Buena is the second debut adult novel by a YA author I wish I’d read before. Adding more books to my TBR right now… 5 stars.