After losing her girlfriend in a drug-related tragedy that may have involved her delinquent father, 16-year-old Sara Foster flees her tiny hometown for a better life in Los Angeles. Here, she becomes an accomplished bartender known for her unusual flavor combinations (“Orange blossom. Lime. Smoke. Cherry.”). In the same city, perpetual student Emilie Dubois is seeking direction and stability when she impulsively takes a job at a flower shop that makes arrangements for local restaurants.
As bartender and florist, the two women eventually cross paths at Yerba Buena, a spectacular, classically Californian establishment. But true to described qualities of the restaurant’s herbal namesake — “subtle and sweet and just the faintest bit bitter” — this is less a romance than a study of complex, modern love. Readers will have to be patient: After meeting for the first time, it takes a while before the two women connect again: Emilie embarks on an affair with the restaurant’s married owner, Jacob. And Sara must reckon with a shocking discovery from her past de ella and the people she left behind.
Understated and evocative, “Yerba Buena” takes two fractured people from two fractured families and explores the ways they fit together — and the ways they don’t. While Nina LaCour’s novel is not plot-driven, it has the most momentum when the characters are engaged in their goals or are pursuing their passions; Emilie’s move into house-flipping later in the story delivers satisfying results for both character and reader.
Sara’s process for creating cocktails encapsulates the novel’s low-key thoughtfulness: “[S]I have watched how the light moved and thought about color. [T]he degree of sweetness could be determined by the sound of her feet across the floor as she circled the space, and the art on the walls, and the shape and size of the windows.”
This is the Bay Area author’s sixth novel, and her first for adults after a successful career writing young-adult books. (Aspiring authors might be interested to know LaCour offers a digital writing course, the Slow Novel Lab, via her website de ella.) LaCour’s writing de ella invites a willingness to notice small details and be comfortable in gray areas. As Sara says to Emilie when making her a cocktail, “Spearmint’s stronger, tougher. Yerba Buena’s a little more delicate.”
“Yerba Buena” is observed with a cool, generous eye in spare, quiet prose that expertly illuminates the trauma that Sara and Emilie are both wrestling with, as well as their hope and healing. Ultimately, this is quiet but beautiful character-driven fiction that lingers like a perfectly mixed cocktail.
By Nina LaCour
(Flatiron Books; 304 pages; $26.99)
Green Apple Books on the Park presents Nina LaCour book launch: In person and virtual. 7 pm May 31. Proof of vaccination or mask required for in-person event. Registration required for virtual. 1231 Ninth Ave., SF www.greenapplebooks.com
A Great Good Place for Books presents Nina LaCour in conversation with Jandy Nelson: In person. 7 pm June 9. Montclair Presbyterian Church, 5701 Thornhill Drive, Oakland. ggpbooks.com/event
Bookshop Santa Cruz presents Nina LaCour: 7 pm June 23. In person. Proof of vaccination and masks required. Free, but registration required. 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. www.bookshopsantacruz.com
Writers With Drinks presents Nina LaCour: In person. 7:30 p.m. July 9. $5-$20. The Make Out Room, 3225 22nd St., SF writerswithdrinks.com