Sweet on You
I first learned about the writing of Romanceclass in the Philippines when I interviewed Bianca Mori for the Tropical Romance Book Club. Both Mori’s novella One Night at the Palace Hotel and another #romanceclass novel by Mina V. Esguerra, Kiss and Cry, have been DIKs for me, so I was quite excited to try the first #romanceclass book picked up by a major US publisher – Carla de Guzman’s Sweet On You from Carina Press. This book has some characterization issues with the heroine that made it not as successful as my previous reads, but it also has a sweet hero, a richly developed Filipino Christmas setting, and drool-worthy descriptions of Pinoy baked goods. Sweet On You is holiday fare worth tasting.
Sari Tomas owns a coffee shop called Cafe Cecilia, part of a beans-to-cup coffee business she and her sisters inherited. When Gabriel Capras moves in next door to open Sunday Bakery, Sari doesn’t take it well. The rivalry becomes a prank war, but the two neighbors start enjoying each other in a way that suggests a feeling other than dislike.
This story got off to a rocky start with Sari’s insta-hate for Gabriel. It’s just… inexplicable. A coffee shop owner should be thrilled to have a destination bakery move in next door, and immediately open negotiations on cross-promotion. Instead, Sari decides to hate him based on… him saying she’s gorgeous, and her deciding that it can’t be true because she thinks her thighs are too big? Then she bans customers from bringing his products into her shop. What kind of business sense is that? (Gabriel, on the other hand, is lovely. No matter how hostile Sari is, he’s polite, generous, and kind.)
Now, yes, the two get off on the wrong foot for no rational reason. But once you accept that they’re enemies, their rivalry is actually quite charming. They play pranks back and forth on each other, but never unprofessionally – nobody sabotages someone’s food safety, or makes the other look bad. The pranks are just funny (hiring a marching band for a serenade!) and end up increasing the profile and profits for both businesses. Unfortunately, it’s only a matter of time until Sari becomes irrational again. She has over-developed abandonment issues which she projects onto Gab, and mostly I wanted her to get the therapy her sister kept recommending.
What’s positive? I adored the setting of this book. The author brings the Philippines to delightful and vivid life, from the role of family to the unique holiday traditions, like Simbang Gabi, the early morning masses in the days leading up to Christmas. The Laneways, the shopping street where Sari and Gabriel’s stores are located, has the feel of a small town, with the store owners having parties and gossip networks and killer karaoke parties. And where I live, it’s a time of year when I love to vicariously warm up by reading about tropical settings.
The other highlight of this book are the descriptions of food. Not since I read Laura Ingalls Wilder have I so desperately wished to reach into the pages of a book and pull out a feast of its contents. Sinturis muffins! Bibingka! Puto bumbong! I don’t even know what these things are, and I desperately want to shove them in my face. The author does not explain these to readers (it’s part of the Own Voices vibe – she doesn’t translate Tagalog, either) but Google is your friend, at least until you see a picture of what she’s describing and collapse in a pile of envious drool. I would marry Gabriel just to taste his cooking. Having one of Sari’s custom coffee blends to accompany it? Heaven.
Long story short, this book is a bit like riding with someone who can’t quite drive a stick. It’s rough and bumpy before an enjoyable cruise, then that cruise is suddenly disrupted by jarring lurches, which smooth out again, and repeat. It made it hard to get into a reading zone, and I didn’t feel a sense of urgency to return to the book when I wasn’t reading. However, the hero is lovely, the setting is richly developed, and the culinary descriptions are positively food porn. If you’re looking for a holiday read that’s out of the ordinary, Sweet on You will not disappoint.