Friday, April 3, 2020

CaribBelle's Review: American Sweethearts

American Sweethearts by Adriana Herrera
Publisher: Carina Press (March 30th, 2020)
Series: Dreamers, 4
Genre: Contemporary Romance (Queer, M/F)
Dual 1st POV

Juan Pablo Campos doesn’t do regrets. He’s living the dream as a physical therapist with his beloved New York Yankees. He has the best friends and family in the world and simply no time to dwell on what could’ve been.

Except when it comes to Priscilla, the childhood friend he’s loved for what seems like forever.

New York City police detective Priscilla Gutierrez has never been afraid to go after what she wants. Second guessing herself isn’t a thing she does. But lately, the once-clear vision she had for herself—her career, her relationships, her life—is no longer what she wants.

What she especially doesn’t want is to be stuck on a private jet to the Dominican Republic with JuanPa, the one person who knows her better than anyone else.

By the end of a single week in paradise, the love/hate thing JuanPa and Pris have been doing for sixteen years has risen to epic proportions. No one can argue their connection is still there. And they can both finally admit—if only to themselves—they’ve always been a perfect match. The future they dreamed of together is still within reach...if they can just accept each other as they are.

This book is approximately 90,000 words

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Reviews for Herrera's books:

Tropes and themes: Second chance romance, childhood sweethearts, forced proximity.

Content warning: The main character investigates a case of suspected childhood sexual abuse.

CaribBelle's Review:

American Sweethearts is the soul-stirring and deeply satisfying fourth and final installment in Adriana Herrera’s award-winning Dreamers series, which centers on a tight group of Afro-Caribbean friends finding love and living their own version of the American dream in New York. All the protagonists of these books are Caribbean immigrants or the children of immigrants. All are striving and hustling to forge their own path. Though these characters face challenges stemming from or in some way related to race and their immigrant identity, that identity is also a constant source of pride and joy. The cultures of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Haiti are all represented and celebrated in some way in these books. The fourth book steadfastly upholds this and all the traditions that make this stunning series stand out including indelible characters, incredible found family, and a social justice center leavened by blazing heat and humor.

This time the story centers on Priscilla and Juan Pablo, former childhood sweethearts who’ve been in a volatile, love-hate, off and on relationship since they were teenagers in the Bronx. They’re now in their mid-thirties. Two decades is a long time to be feuding with someone you love, and Priscilla in particular, is more than tired of the struggle. In her words, Juan Pablo has been, and when the story opens likely still is, a “fuckboy.” The last time they got together less than a year ago left some deep scars and not a small amount of hostility. Readers of the earlier books can attest to that tension. The sparks, however, are also very much still in force.

This final chapter in the Dreamers series focuses on how these two people, who have never really fallen out of love, find their way back together despite those two decades of drama, pain and mistrust, but it’s also the story of how one of those characters, Priscilla, navigates a life-altering reevaluation of her life’s work and future path. That multilayered setup is one of the book’s greatest strengths. This is truly grown-folks business in the best sense of the term, and that’s not that prevalent in romance.

With experience and history comes baggage, however, and these characters have it in spades. Each encounter carries echoes of the past. Each text message merits second guessing and strict scrutiny. Relatedly, and further complicating the story, one of the problems Priscilla and Juan Pablo face is beyond their control. Nothing they do, no reunion, no matter how tentative, can ever be low-stakes. The duration of the relationship and the closeness of their crew amplify the typical issues involved in a childhood sweethearts, second chance romance. This is no ordinary love. To say that their families and close knit group of friends are intertwined and invested is an understatement. His parents adore her. Her parents love him. Their mothers dream and scheme about grandkids, and Priscilla’s cousin Nesto (the protagonist of book 1) is one of JuanPa’s best friends. It’s fun to see our protagonists navigate around those ties, Priscilla for example:

I saw Irene, J’s mom, gesturing for my mom to taste the wine she was drinking while my dad was pointing at Rafa’s glass, indicating he wanted one of the same. 
“It’s like we got a reunion of the old block.” I smiled at Patrice’s deep voice. He was right, the old folks were getting on like they’d never stopped living up the block from each other.

Throughout the Dreamers series, that close-knit community around these characters has played a central role. It’s a joy to see these characters surrounded by love. And, it’s especially meaningful to see that community uphold queer characters of color—all of the central couples in the earlier books have been male/male, and Juan Pablo is bisexual. But the flipside of support is that kind of omnipresent family and friend circle can also be intrusive. In this case it heightens the stakes and the stress of every decision JuanPa and Priscilla make. It’s interesting to see those dynamics represented so well on the page.

With all that history and all that community, this romantic reunion is a very tall order, but the way that the story is told does justice to its complexity. American Sweethearts employs first person narration with the different points of view represented in alternating chapters, which works well in this context. We get to see where each person is, where the gaps are and what draws them together, all things that are important with the second (ok 12th) chance at love.

So, Why NOT him?  The Challenge of Second Chance Romance

That is the question. What was so broken that it took them decades to put right? One natural hypothesis given their palpable chemistry and his rep: maybe their relationship was only sex? But no, that’s definitely not true. They were best friends.

As the story alternates between voices and perspectives, it’s clear that the yearning and pining are strong and very mutual. But so is the trepidation, though Priscilla's hesitation is stronger. It’s so strong that the one significant critique I have of the book is that some of what’s behind that trepidation needed further clarification. In any second chance romance, the primary barrier is past baggage. We need to see what it is and then see them work through it. Here, the initial half of that formula -- defining the problem -- wasn’t fully realized.

The primary, concrete issue that the text addresses about their past involves JuanPa’s hostility to Priscilla being in the NYPD and him letting her down since they were supposed to join together. That’s important. It’s where the story begins. A lot of other friction, though, revolves around JuanPa’s notorious fuckboy tendencies, and those are mostly hinted at rather than laid bare. There are few specifics with regard to his sketchier behaviors—no flashbacks, no pivotal incidents, so a part of the primary conflict remained a bit amorphous. Yet JuanPa has even gone to therapy to improve those fuckboy tendencies because they’ve had a damaging effect on his life.

As a result, I don’t have a clear sense of the problematic aspects of his character. Here’s what I did see. JuanPa has had a lot of sex and sexual partners. But that’s no sin. This is a very sex positive crew. So what was it? The mystery of it had me contemplating little things like the way JuanPa licks his lips a lot around Priscilla in a kind of primal, involuntary signal of want that Priscilla characterizes as “all suggestive and shit.” We’re frequently in his head as he tries to tamp down his libido and penchant for sexual innuendo. His past comes up so often I wondered if there was something more going on, a subtext that the text avoided making plain because his behavior would be frowned on and the hero rejected based on the rules of the romance genre. Was he having other partners while they were together? Or was he always dipping in and out? Did he promise more and not deliver or just flit around? This is the challenge. We’re seeing the remnants of a problem after it’s been solved.

Though the text doesn’t reveal many details about the behaviors that earned JuanPa his fuckboy reputation, we do know that in the past he’s often led with sex, that feelings took a backseat, and that there’s a deep, abiding conflict over his attempts to influence Priscilla’s career.

Why Now? In Forced Proximity, Opportunity Knocks

So what would make a smart, jaded woman reconsider a tenth or twelfth chance at romance and with a bad boy of JuanPa’s repute? Two key things really.

The first thing that brings them together is opportunity—they’re forced into close proximity in the right place at the right time. A wedding provides the perfect setting for that dormant flame to rekindle. The whole Dreamers crew, Juan Pablo and Priscilla and their respective parents included, have assembled for the destination/homeland based wedding of one of their closest friends, Camilo (star of Book 2: American Fairytale) to Thomas, the sexy woke Dominican billionaire of all their dreams.

To no one’s surprise, a week in paradise that’s also Priscilla’s ancestral home reignites that not-so-dormant spark. The wedding is actually just the start of many reunions for the Dreamers crew. At times the story gets a bit bogged down in cameo appearances and reports of the other couples’ perfect bliss. It seems as though each couple is physically and emotionally in perfect sync at all times. It gets a little over the top even as it puts our couple in an awkward and somewhat envious situation during this close proximity.

The second, more important, factor is the work Juan Pablo has done in therapy. Though he doesn’t immediately reveal this to Priscilla, after the last relationship blow-up, he took his sketchy self to therapy and he did the work. As a result, he’s being thoughtful, and he’s behaving differently now. It’s interesting to see the results of that work from two perspectives-- Priscilla’s point of view but also Juan Pablo’s. Getting inside the head of someone who’s taken a long hard look at himself and made the decision to do better is fascinating and rewarding. It’s also really important to see that the work is ongoing. We see him challenging his first instincts, being mindful and careful in his actions.

The Secret Ingredient

The text handles Juan Pablo’s struggle with skill so that it enhances rather than weighs down the love story. The secret ingredient is humor. And his practiced mindfulness is one source of it. JuanPa is forever tamping down his baser instincts around Priscilla. He self censors and censures himself a lot in the present. A workshop is a prime example. As Juan watches Priscilla lead a sex ed workshop for a group of senior citizens, he gets very inappropriately enthused:

We were about five minutes from the end and I’d managed to push through half a dozen boners and one particular tricky situation with a cock ring demo that for real had me holding my breath so long I lost time.

Later he thinks:

I wanted to go up to her and tell her that all that sexy shit she was telling the abuelitas had me mad revved up and a little confused. That I wished I could take her home right now and fuck her senseless. Instead I took four deep breaths like my therapist showed me and waited until it was just the two of us left in the room.

Again, what behavioral issue is Juan Pablo struggling with that he needed these strategies to reign in? I don't know, and I still want to.

Nonetheless, this scene reflects an outstanding strength, the way the book handles sex and sexuality. Adriana Herrera delivers sensuous, high heat dialogue and action in all of her books, but sex is especially important in this one as Priscilla is a part time sex health educator, activist, and communicator. She has a podcast, an online store, and she does workshops on sex education. She’s made it her mission to help all types of people, but in particular members of marginalized groups, accept and make the most of their sexuality. She also practices what she preaches. That shows in every scene between her and the man who is similarly and hugely sex positive and open and almost assuredly the love of her life. JuanPa and Pris may not always know how to talk to each other, but they’ve always known how to make each other feel good. From the outside this may appear a "typical" heterosexual pairing, but it’s still a queer story. JuanPa is bi and there is nothing conventional about their sex life.

In addition, problematic tendencies aside, Juan Pablo’s unabashed support for Priscilla's activism is one of the clearest signs they belong together. It’s one of the ways we know he’s the one. That support is there throughout but it’s particularly rewarding to see it expressed when he declares his love:

“You’re everything I’ve ever wanted. And my dream, mi reina, my prayer, is that you will let me be there for you as you go for yours.”

That’s what a partner says.

A Not So Secret Recipe for Success

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Dreamers series is that these are own voices stories rendered with sensitivity, insight and writterly skill. That’s true of the entire series—the author’s own Afro Latinx immigrant culture is central to each story—but in American Sweethearts, there’s an added dimension. The author’s experience is particularly important here as the book deals with sensitive subject matter in which she has expert knowledge.

As a New York City police detective, Priscilla serves on an interdisciplinary team composed of members of the NYPD and Child Protective Services. Though the work they do matters, Priscilla struggles with the team dynamics and limitations. In a key subplot that lasts throughout the book but is never quite resolved, Priscilla works on a heart-wrenching case involving a twelve-year old girl whom she believes is being sexually abused. As well as sharing Priscilla’s Dominican roots, author Adriana Herrera is a trauma therapist in New York City working with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence. She knows who Priscilla is, what Priscilla’s going through, and this subject matter inside out, and it shows.

In addition to being the one significant storyline outside of the couple’s internal struggles as they grow closer, the case tests their ability to be true partners this time and brings her frustrations with her career path to a boil. It forces her to reassess whether she’s where she wants to be, why she’s stayed for so long and how that all relates to her identity as a first generation American. Her experience evokes that of many:

“I’m discovering that there’s so much in our parents’ dreams that are tied to our own it’s hard sometimes to untangle it all. And their dreams are always safe, doctor, lawyer, cop. The dreams of security, stability.”

It’s a heart-rending prospect, not living up to what she thinks is her parents’ American Dream. Many readers will see themselves in that sentiment as it’s a common one for many first-gen Americans. As an immigrant myself and the child of one, it certainly resonated for me.

All That Ends Well...

Unlike the other books in the series, American Sweethearts isn’t about whether two people will fall in love or even whether Priscilla and Juan Pablo will or won’t fall in love again. The more interesting question is how two people who’ve been at odds for so long can turn that around and make it last. That’s a question of character, of psychology, the human aptitude for change, self-awareness and growth. American Sweethearts is very much character-driven. Everything hinges upon internal changes within people who love each other, but haven’t been very good with each other. That’s why having the inside track on each individual's thinking is crucial and works so well here.

For these reasons—its authenticity, the candid and joyful handling of the characters’ sexuality and struggle, the character study and psychological insights, and the humor—American Sweethearts is a fitting ending to a series that masterfully combines the fun, gooey, romantic stuff with plots that are firmly grounded in reality. It’s not a perfect book—there’s a little too much left unsaid about their past for that—but it is a very strong one.

If you’re a fan of the series and of character-driven stories, and you don’t mind that it’s a little lighter in plot, you’ll love it. If you haven’t read the other books, however, this one might not work that well as an introduction. The reunion of all the couples is sweet but it gets a little repetitive, especially if you aren’t familiar with the struggles they went through to arrive at those picture-perfect happy endings. I still highly recommend reading American Sweethearts, but you should read the other books first.

The Dreamers series exemplifies romance that matters, stories that reveal an abundance of truth. I’m a little obsessed with that. Beyond the fact that these characters all know each other, the common thread is that these Dreamers are striving for and finding a better way to live and love, for themselves and their communities. Right now that’s enormously satisfying. My definition of comfort reading involves stories that are romantic and emotionally satisfying and hopeful in the broadest sense. The Dreamers series epitomizes that. These books are perfect for me as a reader and also, I believe, perfect for this fearful, anxious world.

4 1/2 STARS! 

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Source: eARC

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Meet CaribBelle!

I'm an obsessive book lover as well as a writer, teacher and researcher studying media, politics and identity, and an ardent TV, film, and art enthusiast. My research explores the relationship between media, politics, public opinion and public policy. The aim is to understand the role that media and culture play in attitudes and behavior around race, gender and sexuality.

Thanks for the review, CaribBelle! We could certainly all use some hope and excellent romances in our lives right now. (Stay safe, everyone!)


Until Next Time,

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