Title: Don’t Date Rosa Santos
Author: Nina Moreno
Release Date: May 14th 2019
Nina Moreno’s debut, Don’t Date Rosa Santos, perfectly blends romance and family in a coming of age story infused with heart and magic. In the small town of Port Coral, people have always whispered about the Santos women. How Milagro came from Cuba with a newborn babe and a face full of grief, having lost her husband at sea. The babe in turn grew up, fell in love with a sailor and he too was swept away, leaving a young Liliana heartbroken and pregnant. Rosa grew up hearing how the Santos women are cursed by the sea, how it takes from them the ones they love too much. As Rosa grapples with impending decisions about her future, her mother and grandmother’s grief continues to press in on her. And if Rosa isn’t careful, a new resident to Port Coral, a boy with a boat and a quiet smile, could once again spell tragedy for the Santos women.
Moreno does so many things well in her debut. Not only do her characters feel real, but the town of Port Coral feels like a living breathing world. It’s easy to fall in love with this town’s sights, sounds, and smells. From Mimi’s home, Rosa’s grandmother, to the town’s marina, every place feels like it could and does exist in the real world. Moreno first and foremost most builds this small town around its people. As Rosa navigates her hometown, readers are introduces to a myriad of locals, each bringing something unique to the narrative and forming the personality of Port Coral. I loved every single minor character in this one from the viejitos who make it their mission to spread chisme around town to the Peñas, Rosa’s best friend’s family, who own the local bodega, a place where people and food come together and which feels like the heart of Port Coral.
Much of the novel explores people’s ties to their homeland. For Mimi, Cuba is a part of her past. Having left during a time of political upheaval, so many of her memories of it are tied to traumatic events. For Rosa, Cuba is a safe she doesn’t know the combination to, but which holds the answers to who she is. Rosa is a product of diaspora, stuck between two worlds and not knowing if she is enough for either. So much of Rosa’s plans are tied up in Cuba, as she longs for the home she’s never known but one that feels etched onto her bones. To Rosa, Cuba is the key to healing her family, to mending the ties between daughter and mother. It’s a link to her past as well as who she will be in the future, but it’s never felt quite within her grasp like it does when she is presented with an opportunity to study in Havana.
I really loved exploring the mother-daughter relationships in this novel. Liliana has been dealing with her grief by constantly moving, leaving Rosa to be raised by her mother. Every interaction between Liliana and Mimi is filled with tension. Grief, resentment, disappointed are present in every word they exchange. Rosa is caught in the middle, between a woman she is too afraid to ask to stay and one she is too afraid to disappoint. Navigating this family isn’t easy when there are wounds in their pasts that each are too afraid to revisit. Family traumas have been swept under the rug, keeping the pain too raw and too fresh, even decades later.
Don’t Date Rosa Santos is one of those rare novels that breaks your heart and begins to heal it all within the same chapter. Its emphasis on family, friendship, and community coupled with a touch of brujería, makes it one of the most touching and magical reads I’ve ever had the pleasure of picking up.