Desert Isle Keeper
Amazon’s listing data for the Sugar Sun series is a bit confusing, but Tempting Hymn is definitely book 1.5, and I strongly recommend that you do not read it first, because its entire premise is a spoiler for book one. On the other hand, I actually enjoyed the appearances by the characters I deduced were the previous protagonists, and that’s incredibly rare. Anyway, if you haven’t read book one, Under the Sugar Sun, come back to this review later.
Jonas Vanderburg came to the Philippines with Presbyterian missionaries – not as an evangelist, but as a machinist, to serve God and the church by helping build the mission. But a tragic bout with cholera in Manila took his wife and daughters, leaving Jonas with devastating guilt and without the will to live. When he contracts dengue, it’s almost a relief.
Rosa Ramos was seduced by an American and abandoned when she became pregnant with their son. She’s overqualified to serve as Jonas’s nurse, but she has to prove her skills to earn back a position at the hospital. There is no chance she’ll allow this American to die, no matter how much he wishes she would.
My only complaint about both the relationship and the book is that it felt like Jonas’s decision to propose to Rosa came too fast, as though there was a chapter missing in between his recovery and his proposal. However, the scenes on both sides of the gap are wonderful. Jonas and Rosa must cross wide cultural gaps, and they do it with open communication and consideration. Their wedding night is particularly touching. Jonas confesses that he feels guilty about feelings of desire not shared by his first wife, and Rosa shows him that his second wife most certainly feels a different way.
The setting – early 1900s Dumaguete in the Philippines – is wonderfully developed. We learn about local architecture (and who chooses to refuse to use it). We learn about the burgeoning sugar cane industry, and the dissatisfaction it is creating among locals, who are then targeted by American colonial law enforcement.
Let’s consider the range of classes and social categories in this book.
- Educated/elite American missionaries
- Working-class American missionaries
- Poor Filipinos
- Professional Filipinos
- Wealthy Filipinos
- Philippine Catholic clergy
- Philippine nationalists
And that’s not touching the linguistic pieces (English speakers, speakers of Cebuano, speakers of Spanish) or the religious pieces (Presbyterian Protestant Americans, Catholic Filipinos). When Rosa is at a party and the upper-class Filipina women close ranks on her by speaking Spanish to each other, it’s so brilliantly specific to the time, place, and people. It’s interesting to watch Jonas and Rosa find their fit, not just with each other but within the complex world of the Philippines.
If you like underrepresented settings, social class conflict, intercultural romance, working class characters, or just damn good historicals, the Sugar Sun series is one to get into. I’m certainly developing a sweet tooth!