In Laura Taylor Namey’s A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, heroine Lila Reyes finds herself quite literally out of her comfort zone - Miami - as her family, concerned for her mental and physical well-being after a series of life crises, sends her to stay with a family friend in a small English village. This book is a solid performer for YA shelves for teen readers, but while I usually advocate for older readers to give YA a shot, this one doesn’t cut it for the adult set.
Lila Reyes’s senior year was marked by three losses: the death of her grandmother, being dumped by her high school boyfriend, and having her best friend decide to join an overseas charity program instead of joining her for college. Her sister finds Lila passed out miles from home, having run herself to exhaustion in the Miami heat, so her anxious family forces her to spend the summer in England with a friend of the family who owns an inn. There, Lila meets some new young people - including the appealing Orion, whose dad owns a tea company - and has to figure out who she is away from the family and city that have given her life its structure.
This story is about location, and the author clearly knows Miami. While I can’t speak to her depictions of Winchester, England, specifically, the author is more accurate than U.S. authors generally in depicting England. Young people are less supervised, the drinking age (and enthusiasm for drinking) in new adults is authentic, and the speech is more English, both in its cadences and its slang.
Both settings where Lila bakes (the bakery at home in Miami and the inn where she’s living in England) are developed as plausible businesses - she doesn’t make a living selling cupcakes in a seaside town of two hundred inhabitants. Lila is realistically obsessive about her baking, and is also realistically developed as a baking prodigy ready to lead (and obsessed with) the family business. I also liked how her steamroller personality, while well-suited to running a kitchen as a young woman, causes her issues in her personal relationships. It is believable that part of her shock in managing her sequential losses is her inability to handle events in life she can’t bend to her will.
But overall, these losses are not effectively written. The one-two-three of her challenges certainly - to put a YA term on it - suck. And I don’t want to say that Lila’s reaction is disproportionate, because everyone responds to upheaval in different ways. But it’s hard not to feel that two of Lila’s ‘traumas’ (a breakup and a friend not joining her for college) are pretty run-of-the-mill for teens. That doesn’t mean Lila can’t be devastated by them - but if she is feeling them to the point of self-harm, she needs a therapist, instead of - or at least in addition to - a trip to England.
The passing of her grandmother, a mother figure, six months previously is obviously another story, and her reaction is more proportionate. Unfortunately, this issue is fumbled in a different way. Orion is experiencing a similar, ongoing loss of his mother to early-onset dementia, but while Lila implodes, the author doesn’t give Orion any reactions other than stoic acceptance. Orion supports and cares for Lila through her mental health progresses and setbacks, yet Lila expends zero emotional energy in his direction. In fact, when Orion takes Lila to visit his mother in the dementia facility, it’s all about how traumatic and hard it is for Lila. Her reactions are so self-centered and devoid of empathy that, as someone who has lost multiple relatives to dementia, I was honestly offended:
Waiting in this reception room with its potted plants and periwinkle wallpaper, I watch as family members are reunited by long-awaited visits, and once again separated by departures that come too soon. My heart tightens as one woman wipes away tears as she leaves. But she can come back again. I can’t stop the thought. I will never visit Abuela in a home like this.
And she says to Orion:
“I don’t know what’s worse, not getting to say goodbye, or saying goodbye to a little more every year.”
In my head, Orion responds, “When they were handing out basic human empathy, where were you? The bathroom?” But because Orion is perfect, he instead graciously replies, “Does one have to be worse? Or can’t they be the same amount of terrible?” While I have my own personal thoughts on which is more difficult, I think we have to all agree that it’s woefully disappointing that Lila is incapable of understanding Orion’s loss as anything other than a potential threat to her centrality in their story.
I kept hoping the author would call Lila out on her narcissism the same way she calls her out on her bulldozer personality (it’s quite well done - with, for example, her friend pointing out that they went running because Lila liked running and never bothered to check if her best friend did). Alas, she continues to treat Orion as her Emotional Support Englishman. 99% of my negative experiences with the book were this one issue. I also saw the prose skew melodramatic at points, although as a first person teen narrator that’s reasonable, and on the whole the prose is a cut above what teens usually get in their books. I do wish the author hadn’t used “Africa” as a unitary country (“I can be fully Cubana in England, or Africa, or France, or anywhere” is a list with a serious parallelism error).
A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow has its place in a collection dedicated to teen stories, especially for a passionate baker or someone with a serious jones for Miami. However, it’s not something I will return to.
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