Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Neruda on the Park by Cleyvis Natera

After reviewing novels for 15 years and plotting my own, it's not often that a book surprises me, but Cleyvis Natera's Neruda on the Park is an astounding debut. The set-up reminded me of You've Got Mail: a naive young woman falls for the charming developer who threatens to destroy her world. However, as the beautiful cover art reveals, Neruda on the Park is more of a mother-daughter story than a romance, unless Nothar Park, their Dominican neighborhood in NYC, is the main love interest. What the story becomes is true to the multidimensional characters in our uncertain times but not what you'd expect from genre scaffolding.

Natera's novel has such a wonderful sense of place of both Manhattan (where I grew up) and the Dominican Republic (where I've visited). The generosity and rivalry of neighbors in a close knit community was well observed. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of food: "Pastel making started out as it always did - hours peeling skin, grinding the flesh of plátanos, yautias, and yuccas until the grainy yellow paste was smooth enough to be mistaken for cooked cornmeal." There's so much local flavor: from the decorative (not pandemic) masks celebrating Dominican Independence Day to the sidewalk barbecues with extra food to share, but crime, sexism, racism, and ICE lurk around the corner.

Cleyvis Natera photo by Beowulf Shehan
The book opens with commercial glitz: successful women wear designer suits with mortgageable shoes and dine in trendy restaurants. The power players, both black and white, live in private brownstones, where jewelry and books are displayed behind glass like trophies of social status. Double Ivy League educated herself, Luz Guerrero wants to grasp everything that is withheld from her. Her name in Spanish means light warrior, and she earns it, fighting for justice.

To please her doting parents and her mentor-boss, Luz works long hours as a corporate lawyer, pouring her savings into her parent's retirement home back in DR and buying designer clothes for herself on credit. After her career hits an unexpected setback, Luz meets a handsome billionaire in a hot yoga class (don't quit reading). Although white and privileged, Hudson apologizes for his mistakes, speaks better Spanish than hers, recites Pablo Neruda's poetry by heart, and welcomes Luz into his luxurious world without reservations. Hudson wants the best for her. So why does her mother hate him?

Halfway through the book, the seemingly predictable plot warps like a Dali clock, resetting our perception of reality. What I enjoyed the most was watching the characters develop and twist the storyline in unexpected directions, but I won't say any more to avoid spoilers. Except go pre-order this May 17th book from your local indie bookstore before it sells out. Publishing rights to Neruda on the Park sold at auction for all the right reasons. Will there be a movie?

My reviews of two more excellent novels by Dominican Americans:

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

¡Felicidades por tu maravilloso debut, Cleyvis! Me encantó tu novela y espero que escribas más.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy


Barrie said...

This sounds fantastic! You had me at the first sentence of your review. :) I love to be surprised. One of my sisters (not the one who wrote today's review on my blog) lived in the DR for a year. I think I'll get this book for her. Added to my TBR pile. Thanks for reviewing!

Lyndi Lamont said...

Sounds like a great read, Sarah. Tweeted.

Linda McLaughlin

Lucy said...

Like others have said, it sounds like a good book and one to be added to the TBR pile, as I also like to be surprised But, I have to say, I literally burst out laughing at the "don't quit reading" comment in the review. :)

Thanks for reviewing.

Powell River Books said...

I think a lot about white privilege these days. In Canada we are working through issues for First Nation people that are the result of colonization and white privilege is getting in the way of finding solutions. - Margy

Jenn Jilks said...

I've been to that country. I think I might like to read this one! Thanks for sharing.

cynthia said...

Wonderful to read one of your reviews again, Sarah. This book sounds great, and I've added it to my list. I'm so interested in this: "What I enjoyed the most was watching the characters develop and twist the storyline in unexpected directions..." I also love the title and the cover art.

Jody Feldman said...

Sounds amazing! And so is your review! (Can you write mine for me?) :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, what a perfect gift! Thanks for hosting our book group.

Lyndi, thanks for sharing on Twitter!

Lucy, this book has some funny moments too.

Margy, yes, I read about the horrible abuse to Native children. The US has a lot to apologize for too. It's so important to have more diverse authors published to encourage empathy.

Jenn, there are some lovely and gritty flashback to DR. It felt very realistic. I do long to return. Enjoy!

Cynthia, excellent! Let me know when/if you review it. Cleyvis Natera would be an interesting author to feature in your day in the life of authors series. Also congratulations on your second book!

Jody, double thanks!

A Cuban In London said...

Excellent review. I like the sound of the plot twists. :-)

Greetings from London.

thecuecard said...

I'm curious how the mother-daughter plot fits in with the Hudson romance hmm. Interesting book cover! Ill look for it. thanks,

Stacy said...

Sounds like a great book.

Have you read Olga Dies Dreaming? It's slightly similar, but about the battle for a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mario, thanks!

Cue, I'd love to read your review.

Stacy, I have not, but thanks for the recommendation. I'll check it out.