Book Review

American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera

It’s been a few days since I finished this book, and I’m still thinking about it. I look at food trucks differently, and I think about the language of food, how food is a way of care and of expression, and how good food can overcome so many barriers. I also find myself thinking about the painful emotional journey of one of the characters survives in the course of the story, and how much that part resonated with me, almost indelibly. Once I started reading this story, I didn’t want to stop, and as I was on vacation at the time, I didn’t have to. Yes, I chose reading over snowboarding (it was about 6 degrees Fahrenheit and conditions were icy anyway).

Nesto moves to Ithaca to relocate his food truck OuNYe (a wordplay on “ounje”) to an area which lacks Caribbean food and offers less competition for his business.

I knew this when I recorded a podcast interview with Adriana Herrera (Episode 341. The Self Care of Unapologetically Massive Happy Endings: An Interview with Adriana Herrera), and I knew this before I started reading, but please, heed this warning. For the love of all that is delicious, do NOT read this book while hungry.

Anyway, Nesto’s family in Ithaca and his best friends (and sequel ensemble) from NYC all dive in to help him move, and later help him at various times after the attention his food attracts creates more opportunities to level up his prominence in the area. There’s a wonderful familial community around Nesto, and it serves as an emotional and personal contrast for Jude.

Jude is a librarian who focuses on youth services in their county, and who is lured to the food truck because it’s conveniently right near the building. Plus, his best friend and coworker is Dominican and was going to drag him over anyway.

May I please point out a second time that you should not under any circumstances read this book while you’re hungry. There’s a lot of food, a lot of eating, a lot of description, and a lot of culinary salaciousness. On a scale of 1-10, the food pr0n in this novel goes all the way to eleven and then breaks off the knob.

Jude is quiet, reserved, almost shy at times, and initially has the bearing of someone who has created for himself a life and identity that is accurate and authentic, but came at such a high cost that he’s protective of it, and hesitant to intimately involve himself with other people. As the story progressed, I learned exactly what had happened to Jude, and why he exists in such a lonely space, with no family around him. The contrast with Nesto is significant and painful, and the way Nesto changes his life is glorious.

Jude speaks Spanish, having lived in Central America for a time, and he uses it to flirt with Nesto when they meet. Nesto, extremely confident in himself, his sexuality, his talent as a chef, and his identity, is knocked sideways by Jude, and the way each of them grapples with their attraction and interest in one another is adorable and often hilarious.

Their story has both internal and external issues (more on those in a moment) and the shared languages of Spanish, of family and friendship, and of food create pathways between the characters that are often wordless. I loved them, and that’s coming from a reader who is 1000% a dialogue fiend. The language of food and of providing assistance to someone’s dreams and effort, of the emotional and physical labor combined, communicate so much about the characters – all of them, not just Nesto and Jude. The layered pathways of communication of culture, of interest, of care, of family, or of support made the romance and the relationships between the characters richer and more nuanced with each chapter.

The chapters alternate point of view, and the ways Nesto and Jude see and interact with each other and the larger world around them drive their connection as much as their conversations. Jude’s way of thinking about Nesto explains so much about himself, and his own character: “God that laugh. It could change my life.” And later: “Nesto made me want too many things I didn’t trust myself with.”

Perhaps my favorite “Jude can’t stop watching and wanting and pining” scene is this one:

“This man could trip up my world. I observed Nesto chatting with the bartender as he waited for my drink, and marveled at how relaxed he looked, how comfortable in his skin he was…. I wondered what it took to make someone move through the world with that ease.

We were so different. It had taken me months to be brave enough to go out for a drink with people from the office. He’d just been here a day, and he was taking up space like he owned the place. And yet, his mere proximity made me feel more alive and present in my body than I had in years.”

Nesto is quite gifted at explaining exactly what he’s thinking, and is fearlessly himself, something that fascinates Jude to no end, and makes Nesto a very interesting character to read. At one point, after a bad day, he says to Jude:

“Today sucked, and the only things that make sense right now, are making food and you.”

How could I say no to that?

Indeed, Jude. Indeed.

Nesto has multiple languages with which to explain how he feels and what he thinks, and I loved all of them. I highlighted a lot in this book, every time a phrase or way of expressing an emotion grabbed me. The writing is elegant and distinct, and the development of the characters was more often created in smaller portions, with a subtlety I savored.

Unfortunately, sometimes that subtlety was stifled by ruminations, dialogue, or characters that were abruptly obvious and clumsy. Sometimes a large dollop of backstory would appear, interrupting the flow of the conversations and scenes.

There is a specific villain in this story, Misty, and we’re introduced to her because she fucks with Jude’s salads and the food that he brings in, stealing pieces and making it clear it’s been tampered with. It’s a terrible and disgusting thing to do – and serves as a kind of contrast with Nesto, who wants to feed everyone, especially Jude.

Then Misty is unabashedly racist, then she doubles down on her racism, and then she shows off her power at the library Jude works in. As an antagonist she was unilaterally awful to such a degree, especially by the end, that I couldn’t understand how or why anyone around her put up with her bullshit for so long. Moreover, a lot rests on Misty’s terrible shoulders: she’s a singular person representing obstacles originating in multiple causes, and over time comes to resemble a caricature of super-terrible villainy. She has no redeeming qualities, and can mess up Jude’s professional goals, Nesto’s professional ambitions, and the safety of Nesto’s employees, all with very little effort. Misty: literally the worst.

There’s always a tipping point with unilaterally awful human beings in fiction, though the time to reach that point can be much longer than my patience allows. In this case, I was increasingly frustrated by the repeated decisions by multiple people who held more influence to ignore or dismiss what Misty was doing. I understood why those who were more vulnerable to her machinations were unwilling to challenge her, but the number of people who could and didn’t was increasingly irritating. That’s often the case when someone has Whiteness to protect them, but with Misty, so many elements of terrible were housed in one person, her presence eventually weakened the overall story.

My other frustration was within the romance. While Nesto learns to recognize his own work obsessiveness, and the ways in which he sidelines people in his life to keep his focus on his professional goals, it’s a mistake he makes repeatedly, and in a way that eventually causes real emotional harm to Jude. Nesto’s grand gesture and grovel are pretty epic, but I didn’t feel that Nesto fully addressed what he’d done, or not done, nor how it affected Jude. I didn’t think that he’d sufficiently put into place steps to impede himself from falling again into the habit of hyper-focused tunnel vision when it came to his ambitions. There’s also a point where he tries to explain why he fell into that state of intense work, and what it had to do with Jude, but it wasn’t sufficient for me, because there were few signs of that motivation until he tried to partly justify his actions.

Overall, however, this was a truly delicious, delectable, emotional story with resonance and heart and so much food, it might as well have its own stomach because yours shouldn’t be growling alone. Jude learns to allow his friends and Nesto the gift of truly knowing him, and lowers some of his brittle defenses in order to be authentically, vibrantly himself. Nesto learns that there’s room in his life for more than his ambitions, that his talent can be shared in so many different ways, beyond what he’d dreamed for himself.

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American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera

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  1. Kathy says:

    Really great review of an amazing book. There is so much goood going on there that I can hardly wait til the next one. I live in the UK, and have just spent a silly amount of money shopping online at Cool Chilies and Mexican Grocery dot com after reading this book. Be warned! Thanks, Sarah, I think you nailed it. I know Barbque Betty et al are a thing, but it’s bigger and badder than that, and I think making Misty carry the can diminishes the problem. (But I am a white woman, and I am aware of my knee-jerk defensiveness, I struggle with that.)

  2. vasha says:

    Although the various negatives you mentioned lowered this book to a C- for me, I did love the way the writing lit up every time Nesto was interacting with his friends and family. And the other fun thing: I live in Ithaca, and the depiction of the town is so detailed! Not just the highlights but every street is mentioned (and accurate). When Nesto first arrives he sets up his food truck in the parking lot of a gas station across the street from the library, and I was like, yup, I know that gas station.

  3. Michelle says:

    I’ve just finished the sample excerpt of this book and I don’t think I’ll read it. I loved Nesto and his family andI loved the food discriptions but I hated Misty. To me she felt like a harmful stereotype of a former fat person. She got skinny and she got bitchie (about food). Fat people are already ridiculed when they’re fat. And this feels to me like another form of vilification where a fat person looses weight she’s suddenly a bitch to other people about food. It feels like you just can’t get it right no matter what you do. I hate the ‘she got skinny and now she’s a bitch’ trope as much as I hate the ‘she’s fat and not worthy of basic humanity attitude. Misty is already a racist vile person. That would have been enough in the context of this story imho.

  4. Marika says:

    I’m also from Ithaca. Glad to know the details are right. Unfortunately though I am very familiar with the gas station across from the library I’ve never seen a delicious food truck there!

  5. Lisa F says:

    I’m excited to read this one still, but everything about the villain does sound super disappointing.

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