On the bookshelf
By Nina Lacour
Flatiron: 304 pages, $27
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Among the pleasures of reading Sarah Waters’ groundbreaking novels is inhabiting a world of queer women who are not representative of gender identity but simply, gloriously, human. Since Waters wrote “Tipping the Velvet” and “Fingersmith,” there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of lesbian writers whose books have changed lives. Some are really great, some are just fine, as with any category of books. Nina LaCour’s new novel, “Yerba Buena,” comes closer to Waters than most in generating a feeling that could be described as complete security in the hands of an author; you feel she understands her characters so well that you can sit back, immerse yourself, and trust the story.
LaCour has been rightly celebrated for her young adult novels about same-sex relationships, including “Everything Leads You,” “Hold Still,” and “The Disenchantments.” Now she’s bringing her specific blend of realism and romance to mature audiences. Sara Foster and Emilie Dubois have very different backgrounds and interests. Sara, who left home at 16 and worked her way up to bartender at the popular restaurant Yerba Buena, first sees Emilie when she shows up to work there as a floral decorator. Emilie’s Creole grandparents have kept their little family close-knit and loving – and traditional.
Both women have complicated siblings. Sara’s younger brother, Spencer, returns to her life after guiltily abandoning her, then 5 years old, to a neglectful father. Colette, Emilie’s sister, goes in and out of drug treatment programs. These “unfinished” relationships provide a clue to the differences between LaCour and Waters; the former is less interested in showing how a partner can provide strength and comfort in dark times than in examining why a partner isn’t always the right idea.
The problem with LaCour’s approach is that it takes a while for Sara and Emilie to come fully alive, even though their creator clearly knows them so well. You can feel their attraction to each other, but you can’t see them as individuals (this may actually be a barrier to their union). They’re both talented and resourceful and almost indistinguishable, and not because they’re both young women: it’s because they’re not specific.
What works best for LaCour in YA writing works against her, to some degree, in “Yerba Buena.” The author understands what it takes for a character to mature. Emilie, for example, resents her life as a florist and her dead-end affair with the restaurant’s married owner, whose wife and two children always take precedence over her alleged desire for Emilie. After moving into her terminally ill grandmother’s garage to care for her, she finally discovers her calling when she and her father spend long days together tearing up rugs and wallpaper so Emilie can renovate the house. ‘place.
Life changes happen like this. A person finds the kind of work he likes and leans into it. Before long, Emilie has become the de facto apprentice of Ulan, an older Filipino immigrant entrepreneur who teaches her everything from correct measurement to hiring the right people. She flips her grandmother’s house for an excellent profit, buys a dilapidated Ocean Drive mansion, and sets out to restore it to glory – that’s when Sara reappears.
For a short time, all is well and everything is raunchy, with Sara and Emilie happily reuniting in a bedroom while Colette, newly separated from her rehab/cult, moves downstairs to start a sober life. However, any attentive reader from the beginning, when Sara and her friend Grant ran away as teenagers from their sad life in Northern California, will know that Sara’s maturation will be much more difficult than Emilie’s, dragged down by a real trauma.
Sara fell in love with her friend Annie when they were both 14 – then Annie was found dead in the local river, an event that partly caused Sara to flee. After her relationship with Emilie runs into trouble, Sara decides to return home, in part to solve the cold case of Annie’s murder. The unsettling answers she finds there give her the confidence to move forward, bringing the second maturing storyline to a close.
LaCour turns out to have written a story about falling in love, in part because a partner hasn’t learned to love each other yet. It’s not necessarily a new concept, but here it feels fresh, and not because the lovers are both women – again, LaCour manages to make it a given, part of life’s journey. – but because they are young and untrained. (Rest assured, this is not a spoiler, there are twists to come.)
The title of the book refers to a wild herb in the mint family that has medicinal and edible uses; its translation of “good grass” might make you think that will be what binds Emilie and Sara. Late in the story, as Sara mixes Yerba Buena’s (the restaurant’s) signature cocktail, she will run out of the good weed and substitute pure mint. “She drank again – the leafy luminosity, the grass and the bitter and the sweet.” Sometimes Sara realizes that it’s good that “something healing also has a tinge of heartbreak.”
This is what we all learn as we grow into adulthood. This is something LaCour is also learning. ‘Yerba Buena’ has a few jolts as its author makes her own transition to more mature subject matter, but it’s sweet and bittersweet and well-rounded enough to ensure she has all the ingredients she needs for the next one. novel, older and wiser.
Patrick is a freelance reviewer who tweets @TheBookMaven.
Nina LaCour will discuss her book at Diesel, A Bookstore on June 5 and at Vroman’s on June 7.