I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.North of Happy by Adi Alsaid
Published by Harlequin Teen on April 25th 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Family, Young Adult
Pages: 368 •Format: E-Book •Source: NetGalley
Carlos Portillo has always led a privileged and sheltered life. A dual citizen of Mexico and the US, he lives in Mexico City with his wealthy family where he attends an elite international school. His friends and peers-fellow rich kids-have plans to attend college somewhere in the US or Europe and someday take over their parents' businesses. Always a rule follower and a parent pleaser, Carlos is more than happy to tread the well-worn path in front of him. He has always loved food and cooking, but his parents see it as just a hobby.
When his older brother, Felix--who has dropped out of college to live a life of travel--is tragically killed, Carlos begins hearing his brother's voice, giving him advice and pushing him to rebel against his father's plan for him. Worrying about his mental health, but knowing the voice is right, Carlos runs away to the US and manages to secure a job with his favorite celebrity chef. As he works to improve his skills in the kitchen and pursue his dream, he begins to fall for his boss's daughter--a fact that could end his career before it begins. Finally living for himself, Carlos must decide what's most important to him and where his true path really lies.
Many thanks to the publisher for providing a copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!
As a reader, I’d been curious about North of Happy for quite a while. I hadn’t read any of Alsaid’s previous work, but I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding both Let’s Get Lost and Never Always Sometimes, so I was surprised that this one had seemed to fly under my radar. I’m also a HUGE fan of FoodNetwork, Chef’s Table, food blogs, etc. so seeing a YA book explore a protagonist with similar interests (and a great deal more talent than I possess) was a draw as well.
While North of Happy definitely had a focus on food, it had a larger focus on family and dealing with death and grief, and I loved seeing how that manifested in the protagonist’s desire to pursue a culinary career. Protagonist Carlos was different than his spontaneous older brother Felix in many ways, but they were linked by their passion for food. So when Carlos is grieving Felix, it’s fitting that he’s drawn to cooking, to creating, to a form of expression that provides not only a constructive outlet for his anger and grief and confusion, but also serves to soothe and comfort others. It also provided a lot of realistic insight into the not often glamorous life of working in a kitchen, from the late nights to early mornings, beginning at the bottom of the pack and increasing your status dish by dish (in Carlos’ case literally, as he lands a spot as a dishwasher in a premiere restaurant on a sleepy island off the coast of Seattle).
Carlos’ story is also one of travel and self exploration, as he leaves his birthplace of Mexico City to chase an obscure dream in the Pacific Northwest after seeing a thriving and innovative restaurant featured on TV. I am always a huge fan of novels that portray protagonist navigating two cultures and sharing in their unique experiences, and North of Happy was no exception. There’s a touch of magical realism in the writing that’s likely born from the protagonist/author’s Latinx roots, in the way Felix manifests to Carlos in the everyday elements of his life, from animals passing by to the soap suds on the dishes he scrubs for twelve hours a day. Rather than be a commentary on mental illness, it feels like a natural part of the storytelling, a device to portray just how insular Carlos’ world has become since the death of his beloved older brother, and how it fogs the way he interacts with the rest of the world.
While I loved the unique storytelling, small island setting and of course the food descriptions (especially how each chapter started with a recipe!) there were some elements of the novel that didn’t impress me as much. There’s a romance between Carlos and a girl he meets on the island which has its sweet moments, but ultimately felt distracting to the larger overall themes happening with grief, coming of age, career goals, etc. The book also ended on what I felt was a rather melancholy, unfair tone, that negated a lot of the work that Carlos had done over one mistake, which made me frustrated as a reader since I had spent so much time rooting for him throughout his journey.
Overall: As a foodie, North of Happy was an incredible read and one that I’d love to recommend to anyone who finds themselves watching cooking shows or chef documentaries, whether for wish-fulfillment or for practice. It captured the culture of that world incredibly well. However, the story ultimately ended in a way that was unsatisfying and I hoped for more for the protagonist. However, I definitely see myself trying more of Adi Alsaid’s books in the future and would love to learn more about his own background and relationship with food/cooking, as it’s an element I’ve seen so rarely explored in YA!