The summer in Portland, OR has been late-blooming this year. Even until a couple weeks ago, it was gray and drizzly and cold, but if there was ever a novel for summer-ifying Portland, Yerba Buena is a warm glow of a book up for the task. Yerba Buena is Nina LaCour’s adult debut, but coming on the tails of an established and wildly successful YA career, this book sits at a unique point in LaCour’s body of work with both the freshness of an artistic departure and also the refinement of a triumphant mid-career masterpiece. I started reading my early copy in the winter, when such warmth felt unimaginable, and revisiting now in celebration of its publication, I basked in it.
Named for the herb (part of the mint family) that grows in thick and lush tangles, Yerba Buena intertwines two perspectives and two timelines. First, there is Sara, a heartbroken teenage runaway fleeing her small hometown in Northern California and reeling after the death of her first love Annie, living on the road and doing whatever it takes to make it to Los Angeles in one piece. Next, there is Emilie, the aimless twenty-something drifting through various college majors and part time jobs, looking for anything that offers her a sense of clarity, agency, and purpose. This double vision brings both characters into sharp emotional focus; LaCour alternates these stories so that the reader slowly understands how Sara’s past brings her to Emilie’s present. The two finally meet one day at a chic restaurant called Yerba Buena, where Emilie designs artful floral arrangements and where Sara is the enigmatic, watchful bartender. How did they get there, and where will their flirtation take them?
Watching these characters fall in love is magnificent. It’s almost a vaporized love story, where the affinity and sympathy between these characters permeates everything without overwhelming the substance of the narrative. Other plot concerns occupy the space and emotional attention, and upon the bedrock of the love story arises a beautiful narrative of two people healing their respective traumas and rebuilding their respective families alongside one another. It’s an impressive development upon LaCour’s already impressive genre training. YA and romance are both very technically demanding genres, with rigorous expectations for how backstory and foreshadowing should accumulate and how an ending should satisfy. With a Printz award and numerous bestsellers under her belt, LaCour has perfected her approach in ways that translate to adult literary fiction beautifully.
I’m interested to see the way LaCour’s devoted YA readership responds to this novel. I remember imprinting on her novel Hold Still in 2009 like a baby duck and, personally, I love when YA authors begin writing adult books so that their oeuvre grows up along with its readers. Yerba Buena’s pacing is solidly that of adult literary fiction, more meditative and languorous than most YA counterparts, but with the rigorous attention to emotional tension and payoff that YA and other genre fiction instills. Like the cocktails Sara mixes behind the bar of Yerba Buena, LaCour’s combination of elements across genre is elegant and delicious.
Here’s where I’m going to say something spicy, and I trust my readers to bear with me for a minute: Yerba Buena accomplishes in one novel what Sally Rooney attempted in three. And I say this as an on-the-record devoted Rooney Tune! Without sliding into Rooney’s signature listless affect, which can come to feel grating or alienating over time for some readers, LaCour traverses very similar topics that readers will recognize from Conversations with Friends or Normal People: youthful sexual experimentation, extramarital infidelity, relationships and friendships grown into and out of, hometown alienation, pursuit of purpose and creative fulfillment, the slow and queasy unspooling of a misunderstanding. But, in LaCour’s hands, these topics feel more solid somehow. She doesn’t patronize readers by spelling things out too much, but she certainly gives readers more specificity and action to work with.
I can’t comment on these relationships central to the story without acknowledging the current of trauma, addiction, and recovery that runs through the book. I will flag here that there are two drug overdoses (one fatal, one near-fatal) that may be upsetting to some readers, and that there is some survival sex work with dubious consent that may also warrant some preparation. However, I will say that LaCour is a responsible and trustworthy author to handle such topics, without sensationalism and with sensitivity both for the immediate harm and the lingering aftermath of trauma. Her unwavering undercurrent of care is evident both in her prose and in her narrative positioning. The way she writes sibling relationships in particular stands out as a site of deep understanding. Sara and Emilie each are healing family wounds; they each tend to their siblings, albeit imperfectly, and the context of these relationships inform their love for each other at every step of the way.
This is what I mean when I say that the romance plot permeates the book. It makes the coming-of-age and healing possible and purposeful, but it is the lens through which we see these things and not the object of examination itself. I think that’s a beautiful structure: it’s an antidote to any codependency of a “soulmate” style narrative. Our attention is, instead, attuned to the ways Emilie reconnects with her Creole heritage as she learns how to restore her beloved grandmother’s house, or the ways Sara slowly comes to terms with the terrifying grief and betrayal she has been afraid to look in the eye after the deaths of her mother and her best friend. As Sara and Emilie pursue independence and stability, we see the two women reflected in each other, across lines of race and class and more, but they never blur or become indistinct. They are crystalline and complementary, which makes for a love story both romantically satisfying and narratively grounded as the bartender and the florist-turned-contractor learn how to put down roots and how to grow in pursuit of what they want.
Since its publication, Yerba Buena has matched its critical acclaim with a torrent of Book-of-the-Month-Club-level commercial success, and I’m glad to see it. Watching a book of this artistic caliber succeed across the board feels like a triumph, especially at a time when every day seems to bring new punitive and restrictive legislation around affirming care for LGBTQ+ children and access to LGBTQ+ literature. I think a lot about this quote from my friend Lane, the indie queer artist behind Coyotesnout: “queer teachers are living proof of queer futures.” The same feels very, very true of LaCour and her career. Her writing for queer adults feels like a hopeful and heartening gesture to her younger readers as well, a promise that whomever they grow into, there will be stories waiting to meet them. Kids like Sara (angry, scared, precarious) or Emilie (uncertain, dreamy, overlooked) get to grow into loving, creatively fulfilled, emotionally resilient adults. The kid reading LaCour’s YA novels in her school library, passing them fervently to the friend she has a crush on — that kid will be reading Yerba Buena in a few years. Those readers are in for a treat; so too are you.