on May 14, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Magical Realism, Young Adult
Pages: 336 •Format: Audio Book •Source: Overdrive
Rosa Santos is cursed by the sea-at least, that's what they say. Dating her is bad news, especially if you're a boy with a boat.
But Rosa feels more caught than cursed. Caught between cultures and choices. Between her abuela, a beloved healer and pillar of their community, and her mother, an artist who crashes in and out of her life like a hurricane. Between Port Coral, the quirky South Florida town they call home, and Cuba, the island her abuela refuses to talk about.
As her college decision looms, Rosa collides - literally - with Alex Aquino, the mysterious boy with tattoos of the ocean whose family owns the marina. With her heart, her family, and her future on the line, can Rosa break a curse and find her place beyond the horizon?
One of my goals for 2020 is for at least 10% of the books I read to be by Latinx authors, and I’m thrilled I was able to start off the year with a cute and charming Latinx story. Don’t Date Rosa Santos was as charming, quirky and colorful as the gorgeous cover suggests, and also had threads of magical realism, self-discovery and travel that I wasn’t expecting.
The story takes place in the charming Florida town of Port Coral, where Rosa lives with her abuela Mimi, who’s raised her from a young age while her wanderlust mother travels across the US. Though Rosa was born in Florida, the shadow of Cuba and a family curse looms over her constantly and defines her life, luck, and dreams, and thus Rosa lives her life by two core principles: She must never fall in love with a boy with a boat, and she must somehow get to Cuba to discover her familial roots. Rosa navigates these goals with the precision of any Type-A teenager (I can definitely relate) and she must learn how to deal with the unknown when both cardinal rules she’s tried to abide by so long deteriorate early on in the story.
Rosa’s story is one that I think many, many biracial Latinx readers will identify with, as she struggles to claim her Cuban identity while also balancing her own American born experiences and never quite feeling Latin enough. From Rosa’s self-conscious use of her Spanish to her wariness about her family’s beliefs and superstitions, as a half-Latinx myself I felt Rosa’s unique sense of isolation and delicate identity so personally. Rosa is set on majoring in Latin American studies and her mom at one point calls her out, telling her she doesn’t have to major in being Latina in order to basically embrace her culture and identity, and it was such a powerful and semi-alarming moment, because I (and I’m sure many others) know what it feels like to constantly feel like you’re needing to prove you’re connected to a culture that you’ve only experienced second hand or through an American-born lens. The biracial space is such a tenuous one and I’m so glad that there are so many wonderful books being written about it in YA fiction lately (another strong one that comes to mind is Patron Saints of Nothing).
Magical Realism is a longstanding tradition in Latinx literature and I’m so glad to have gotten to experience it in this novel in such a potent way. From the curse that everyone feels follows the Santos women to Mimi’s rituals and products she creates to cleanse, heal and soothe it was wonderful to see magical realism, and magic, acknowledged by the contemporary cast in a way that interacts with their everyday life, and not just in a fantastical way that only readers will pick up on because it’s happening in the background of the characters lives for the sake of plot. This sense of and interaction with magical realism also helped bring to life Port Coral as a living, breathing character in the story and I could taste the pastelitos on my tongue and smell the scent of Mimi’s weekend ritualistic cleaning of their home. I also loved how these magical beliefs and traditions were accepted by the other community members without question or disdain, from the other teens to the viejitos (whom I adored because the fact that they’re little old men who are total gossips complete with a shared social media account that was like Gossip Girl lite was HILARIOUS and so accurate).
Though there were many wonderful things about this story that I enjoyed, at times it was also slow to me and I felt myself losing interest, particularly in the middle. I think this can somewhat be attributed to my personal preference and taste as a reader now, as high-school set YA can sometimes bore me, and I typically prefer more mature protagonists (Rosa was pretty immature in a lot of ways which is totally believable for her situation, but could be a little frustrating at times). I also wasn’t a fan of the whole save-the-town-and-plan-a-festival-slash-wedding premise as it got a little confusing at times and introduced a lot of characters, and I wish more of the book had been focused on Rosa and her family’s backstory and interactions. The romance was fine- nothing to write home about- but I see how it was actually necessary for the plot here given the curse of the Santos women.
I was surprised to find that the plot of the book moved far past what I expected, with a pretty big twist happening about 3/4 the way through and really propelling the last part of the novel in a (positive) direction I was not expecting. It pushed past the sort of “happily ever after” vibe I was anticipating and added a lot more depth to the story, and I’m glad the author made the decision to go the direction she did with the ending (can’t say more without spoilers!)
Overall: Don’t Date Rosa Santos is a charming, magic story of family, self-identity and magical realism that will fully immerse readers in its setting and unique tone. It’s the type of diversity one hopes for in the reading experience, feeling completely authentic yet accessible and relatable to so many different experiences. It gives me a lot of hope for the Latinx space in YA literature and I can’t wait to read more by this author in the future!