Hi Virtually Readers! It’s a shortish post today, about Adi Alsaid’s novel North of Happy. I really liked Let’s Get Lost, but I think this is my favourite novel by him. the setting in Seattle, though Carlos, the main character, was Mexican, irritated me quite a lot though. I really want to read a book set in Mexico City, where the author doesn’t feel the need to transplant it to a relatively bland American setting. I’m honestly just so sick of books set in the US, I think I need to take a break from them or SOMETHING (but I might do a whole post about this later. So.) Anyway, the focus on food combined with a narrative of grief and growth, which was really enjoyable and well thought out.
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.
So basically Carlos likes food. And his brother dies while eating. And he just runs away to a random place. And gets a job in a cool restaurant there and learns about himself and food and friendship and it’s great. I really loved how food served as a coda throughout the narrative, a symbol of loss, an anchor, a distraction. Many contemporaries are all over the place, and so the focus on food kept this one too the point, which I appreciated. Each chapter begins with a list of ingredients, which is fun too. I loved how Felix, Carlos’s dead brother, featured in his interactions with and memories of food. Generally, the way that Felix manifested was a really clever way to show how Carlos was feeling on the inside. As he learnt about food, Carlos was also able to reevaluate his relationship with his brother and his family, and heal a little bit, and that narrative kept me reading, rather than the rather lackluster romance.
I also loved Carlos’s growth, not just in forgiving himself, but in figuring out what he wanted, and what it meant to be a friend, and a boyfriend, and a cook, and a Mexican in the US. I really liked that part of the story too. His character development was sensitive, and honest, and really simply, enjoyable. He is angry and upset at his father–but in the end, he loves his father, and there is reconciliation, and forgiveness. He’s an interesting character, with realistic concerns that are written in a sensitive, honest way. Felix is forgiven too, and Matt, and Elias and Chef Elise, and that also made me really enjoy the story.
I’ve read all of Alsaid’s books, and this is possibly the best. It makes me long for a book that is actually set in Mexico, but Carlos as a character and the focus on food lends strength to the narrative. I also appreciated that it was set in the summer after high school graduation from an international school ‘bubble’ because hello that is me.
So have you read this book? What did you think? Wand what’s your favourite story set in an international school/non ‘Western’ setting?