By Nina LaCour
I received an ARC of Yerba Buena from Flatiron Books in exchange for an honest review.
I was very much looking forward to Nina LaCour’s adult debut after being enraptured by the lyrical prose and melancholy tone of We Are Okay—I wasn’t sure if that mood was specific to that book, or if it was just LaCour’s style. It’s the latter! Yerba Beuna maintains everything I loved about the writing in We Are Okay…unfortunately, almost nothing else here works, and in this case, the writing style actively undermines rather than reinforces the characters and story.
Yerba Buena follows two characters: Sara, who runs away from home with a boy named Grant after the death of her girlfriend, and Emilie, who has no distinguishing characteristics that I can recall. They circle like stars in orbit around one another until inevitably colliding. Sara’s story, although it has a more immediate hook, is much more difficult to connect with—the things she does and the things that happen to her, while not necessarily unrealistic, escalate and accelerate to the point where they become absurd. Rather than slowly turning up the heat, LaCour merely drops the frog into boiling water, leaving the reader without any time to become invested.
Emilie’s story, while more digestible than Sara’s, still left me cold and distant. Everyone she interacts with struck me as far too cavalier about situations and relationships which should elicit strong emotional reactions. I think this is intentional, meant to reflect Emilie’s detached internal state, but intentionality does not necessarily make something good. It makes her story hard to follow and hard to care about, and the dreamy prose only exacerbates this problem, to the point where the eventual Sara/Emilie relationship feels perfunctory rather than fulfilling.
What makes all this is so odd is that I know LaCour can wield distance and dreaminess to great effect; these same qualities were exactly what made We Are Okay so good. Why does it play out differently here? What ineffable variable changed? I don’t know. There is one haunting image from the beginning of Yerba Beuna which will be seared into my brain for a long while—that of Sara’s girlfriend being dredged from the river, water pouring from her body. But the rest of this book was like a slippery eel I was unable to get a grip on, a nebulous and half-remembered thing that couldn’t command my attention.
Review by Erin Larson