Review of American Dreamer

American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera, performed by Sean Crisden. Carina Press. 2019.

Content Warnings for review: Discussion of racism, familial estrangement, abuse, queer hatred.

American Dreamer by Adriana HerreraI have such complicated, strong, mixed feelings about this book. There is so much I loved about it, for much of the story. And there is a later plot twist in it that really didn’t work for me, and had me reeling. I am not sure I can be coherent as I talk about it, because it hit me so hard. I’m going to attempt to be.

I read this book twice. The first time it was as an ARC, in ebook format. It was gripping. I cared about the characters so deeply, almost immediately, and not just the MCs, but the secondary characters, too: Jude’s BFF, Nesto’s BFF’s and Nesto’s mom. I loved the meet-cute, the chemistry between the MCs, was invested in Nesto’s personal arc and charmed by him right alongside Jude. I enjoyed watching Nesto’s arc unfold alongside the romance. I wanted to be Jude’s friend, felt for him and how skittish and self protective and vulnerable he was, and thought he could really use a bunch of queer bookish folks in his life.

This is the foodie romance of my dreams in so many ways! It had so many food details it made me ravenous. It was so much about what food meant to the characters, culturally, emotionally, all the ways that preparing food and cooking for people were connected to love and family and identity. It made me very happy to see the fullness of that. And I was impressed that a debut novel could grip me so intensely, was so tightly plotted that I was driven along and could not put it down, cared so much and invested so deeply in this romance, in these characters.

It made me super nostalgic for NYC, for that sense of home in a city, and really resonated in some ways with how it was for me to leave NYC and move to a college town. I adored how central family and friends were in the story, that was lovely to read. I loved how much cultural pride Nesto had, how much his business was about who he was, where he was from (DR and NYC both), and the friends who were his chosen family. The depth of cultural specificity made me so excited for the future books in the series; by the time I hit the midpoint of the book where we got to spend time with his BFF’s, I was already anticipating their romances and how wonderful they were going to be.

At about 60% a plot twist is introduced, which I’m going to discuss at length. Unfortunately, this plot twist took a book I was deeply enjoying and weighed it down with plot choices that were emotionally heavy and also were framed in ways that felt awful to me as a queer survivor reader who is estranged from my family. (Spoiler, so the text is in white, highlight to read.) Jude, has been estranged from his abusive queer hating family and religious community since he came out. He is contacted by them about his sister (his parent since he was 8), who is in the last stages of dying of cancer and wants to see him. This re-introduction of his family explodes into his life after years of estrangement and it is devastating and deeply triggering, and he is basically not okay for the rest of the book because of it. While I appreciated that Jude insists on holding onto the reality that it’s okay for him to be gay and that the book frames his family’s actions as wrong, this arc in the story really did not work for me, and felt terrible to read.

The book goes into substantial detail describing the queer hatred and emotional abuse and rejection of his family that occurred in the past (including some truly awful things), and then piles onto this with detailed descriptions of continued abusive behavior and queer hatred. The most intense abusive incident is described in minute detail and used as a plot device to create the black moment in the romance arc, which I was particularly upset by, as it felt intensely exploitative of queer survivor pain. But truly, this entire arc felt like it was leaning hard on intense queer pain in order to create emotional tension in the story and hit the final beats of the romance arc. It felt deeply disrespectful to queer survivors of religious and emotional abuse who have experienced this kind of queer hatred and who have been rejected by their families and ostracized from their communities. 

One of the core things that I struggled with in this reconciliation arc was how Jude doesn’t even question for a second whether he might attempt reconciliation with his family, he persists in those attempts despite the abuse and queer hatred he experiences, he frames his sister (who was a parent to him) as blameless in her queer hatred and rejection of him because she didn’t choose to be raised to hate queer people, and he immediately agrees to continue to be in contact with her husband (who was another parental figure who rejected him and is held blameless) and kids after her death.

Jude’s family is not held accountable at all, and the idea that Jude could honor his own needs for safety over reconciliation is not even mentioned or discussed at any point, even after the worst abusive incident. Instead, Nesto has a moment where he praises Jude for this decision in his thoughts, and that admiration for him leads to his internal realization that he loves Jude. 

“He’d walked into the room of someone who had turned her back on him, scorned him, and done it because she’d asked him to, because she needed him. There was such strength in that, in his forgiveness and grace. I thought of what it would be like to lose everyone I loved overnight. Would I be able to put aside my pride and be there for those who hurt me in their time of need? I wasn’t sure I could…I felt humbled by the kind of man he was and that’s when I knew; I was so full of love for this man.”

This moment in the story felt like a kick in the teeth. Not only was the book very obviously pushing an agenda of reconciliation and forgiveness, but it was framing other choices as wrong and prideful, and tying a key moment in the romance arc–Nesto’s recognition that he was in love–to this reconciliation with abusive queer hating family. As a queer person who is estranged from my abusive family, it was very painful to read this entire arc, particularly for the way it framed Jude’s choice to try to reconcile with his family.

On top of that, Jude’s choice felt off to me on both a story level and on a character level. Yes, Jude diminishes himself in the face of other people’s needs (a common survivor trait), but since that’s the case and actually not okay/good for him, what does it mean to give him an arc in the last third of the book that encourages if not pushes him to diminish himself more, instead of to grow and learn to honor his own needs and feelings? How can I root for this relationship when I’m not sure Jude would choose it if he actually honored his own worth and let himself have needs and take up space?

The arc around this plot twist felt so awful to read that after I finished the book, I just put it away. I had such strong feelings that I couldn’t fathom writing a review. It was only when the buzz really started about the second book in the series that I realized I wanted to read that book, so I needed to try to get clear with myself about this book. I decided to reread on audio and attempt to review, partly because I love the audio narrator to pieces, and partly because sometimes books that are really difficult for me in one medium are a bit easier to approach in another.

I loved Sean Crisden’s performance on the audio book. I was somewhat worried about how he might approach this story, but it really worked for me. I found the book just as engaging a read, if not moreso, up until about the same point. (Though this time, I knew what was coming.) It was still quite hard, but in some ways less sharply painful because I was prepared for it. There were also other aspects of story that felt like they were even more enjoyable in audio, which enhanced my second read.

I loved meeting their friends in audio, hearing them banter together. I loved hearing Nesto and Jude flirting in audio, it was really wonderful. All the food descriptions were even more impactful in audio, and hearing the Nesto get lectured by his mom was great. I got even more invested in Jude’s arc around his job in the audio version, which was a nice balance to the later arc; I was glad his entire arc wasn’t about the reconciliation.

I really appreciated the directness in the representation of the main villain in the story, in both reads. It was lovely to see that kind of white privileged lady called out on her racism and her entitlement, in my first read. In the audio, I thought Crisden’s performance of Misty was spot on, and I appreciated her even more. Sometimes you need a simple hateful villain and I thought she was perfect for this story. (And, unlike some other m/m romance that has women villains, this book has a number of really lovely women characters that I completely adored.)

The chemistry of the MCs was one of the standout things in this story, and I loved the heat between them. The sex scenes are smoking hot, and I appreciated the ways that the book doesn’t prioritize penetrative sex as the go-to sex act. Sean Crisden did a great job with their chemistry and sex scenes in particular; his pacing and performance really made room for me to see how deeply these moments in the story were illuminating character and the state of the relationship.

It’s hard for me to summarize my thoughts on this book other than to say I had mixed feelings; there was much to love, and I do really love those aspects of the story deeply, and also a secondary character arc I found quite harmful, that made the book a painful difficult read for me. I do intend to read the second book in the series, American Fairy Tale, which centers Nesto’s BFF Camilo, and I’m looking forward to giving it a try.

Representation

  • Dominican American gay man MC.
  • Gay man survivor MC.
  • Many Afro-Latinx secondary characters, including several queer ones.
  • Afro-Latinx bisexual woman author.

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

Racist and immigrant hating harassment and sabotage is a major plotline, including using police, using social power to shut down business, threatening his partner on the job as leverage to try to shut down business, racist language, and threats of deportation.

Familial and community rejection for being queer from sibling, parent, and parental figures (who raised him since childhood), is a major plotline, and includes a reconciliation arc with automatic forgiveness and immediate agreement for visits by the queer MC. Queer MC is blamed by family for his father’s heart attack soon after he came out and his death from heart disease, and blames himself for it. Reconciliation arc includes queer hating talk and behavior from his family, violent threats and physical menacing from family, parental figure leveraging her imminent death and ambushing him with the queer hating pastor to try to get him to repent and renounce his queerness. All of this is challenged in the text and framed as awful and traumatic in the text and by other characters. The most abusive incident in this reconciliation arc is described in substantial detail, and is used as a plot device to serve the romance arc.

Death of parent from cancer in the past. Death of parent from heart disease in the past. Death of parental figure from cancer in the timeline of the book.

References to police violence. Casual ableist language. Casual teasing about fatness.

Sex on the page.

Disclosures

  • Source of the book: ARC from the author, audio book on hoopla via the San Francisco Public Library
  • I have had some contact with the author on Twitter.
  • All links to Amazon will be affiliate ones. If you buy through those links, I will make a small amount of money on that sale (which I plan to use to buy more books to review), but it will not add any to the cost of your product. It comes out of the company’s profits.

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