by Adriana Herrera
Publication Date: June 30, 2020
I received an advance review copy of this book from Publisher. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
As his twenty-sixth birthday approaches, Desta Joy Walker finds himself in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the one place he's been actively avoiding most of his life. For Desta, the East African capital encompasses some of the happiest and saddest parts of his life--his first home and the place where his father died. When an unavoidable work obligation lands him there for twelve weeks, he may finally have a chance for the closure he so desperately needs. What Desta never expected was to catch a glimpse of his future as he reconnects with the beautiful country and his family's past.
Elias Fikru has never met an opportunity he hasn't seized. Except, of course, for the life-changing one he's stubbornly ignored for the past nine months. He'd be a fool not to accept the chance to pursue his doctoral studies in the U.S., but saying yes means leaving his homeland, and Elias isn't ready to make that commitment.
Meeting Desta, the Dominican-American emergency relief worker with the easy smile and sad eyes, makes Elias want things he's never envisioned for himself. Rediscovering his country through Desta's eyes emboldens Elias to reach for a future where he can be open about every part of himself. But when something threatens the future that's within their grasp, Elias and Desta must put it all on the line for love.
Content warnings: View Spoiler »death of a parent (prior to the book, but character is still grieving), same-sex relationship in a country where they’re still illegal, anxiety and panic attacks (off-page, secondary character) « Hide Spoiler
Desta, one of the main character’s names, means “joy” in Amharic, and that’s a very apt description of this heartwarming book. It’s very much a love letter to Ethiopia, its culture, food and people, and an adorably sweet romance between a native Ethiopian and a man with family ties there. There’s a little bit of the workplace romance trope, along with “only one bed,” and it’s just absolutely delightful.
“Checking out a colleague within thirty seconds of meeting him definitely did not qualify as proceeding with caution.”
After a rough break up, Desta is happy to be back in Ethiopia as an aid worker working on a survey of families in various rural locations. At least, he’s happy about returning to the place his family loved living in, even if he’s not as sure about continuing in his late father’s career. When he feels an immediate attraction to Elias, the local aid worker assigned as his driver, he knows it’s not a good idea to act on it, but he can’t help feeling drawn to him. As their work progresses and their friendship deepens, Desta is more and more sure that his feelings are reciprocated, but will a relationship just leave his heart broken again?
“I felt so far away from my life here. I could pretend.
In the place where I was supposed to be finding myself, I would lose myself in him.”
One of the things I love about Adriana Herrera is that she doesn’t shy away from the realities of the world. Desta acknowledges that while he has experience in doing his particular work, the input from the local workers is just as important, but that’s not a sentiment that’s universally shared by his coworkers and causes some friction among the teams. In addition, same-sex relationships are illegal in Ethiopia, so there’s a definite risk in Desta even admitting he’s gay – and even more for Elias, who’s not even out to his family.
“I always got fidgety when I felt I was under someone’s scrutiny, like if they looked long enough they’d realize I was a fraud. That I didn’t mean any of the things I was doing. But Elias looked at me like I was something worth understanding. As if he hadn’t worked it all out yet, but what he could see, he liked a lot.”
Desta’s POV is both humorous and self-depreciating. Both men are struggling with hard decisions. While Desta enjoys aid work to some extent, he knows it’s not his true calling, and he fears upsetting his mom by abandoning his father’s legacy. Elias has been accepted to a Ph.D. program in New York, but feels like following his dreams would be equivalent to abandoning his family and his country. There’s no easy answers for either character, but their relationship helps each man accept and prioritize their own lives and feelings. Their relationship is so sweet, from mild flirting over (gay YA) audiobooks to coffee to dinners, complete with delicious descriptions of Ethiopian food. There’s a lot of initial pining, but once they both commit to the relationship, it gets very delightfully steamy.
Overall, this book is the equivalent of a warm hug and I’d recommend it to, well, pretty much anyone, especially folks who are missing travel this summer.