Title: Neruda on the Park
Author: Cleyvis Natera
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: May 24, 2022
Genre: Fiction, Multicultural
One Sentence Summary: A Dominican mother and daughter end up on opposite sides when one decides to fight the building of a luxury condos building and the other starts dating the man responsible for the building.
Neruda on the Park focuses on a black Dominican family in the fictional Nothar Park area of NYC. It revolves around a mother and daughter who find themselves on opposite sides. As Eusebia, the mother, does her best to protect her community from gentrification, all while unknowingly battling a growing craziness in her brain, her daughter Luz waltzes off into an intense romance with the man behind the gentrification after she’s summarily fired from her job as a lawyer. It was fun and fascinating to watch them dance around each other, but I particularly enjoyed how they really spent the whole novel coming to grips with what they really wanted. This is a beautiful story that really touches on so many things, but never feels rush and just unfolds as naturally as possible that the lines between life and fiction started to blur in my mind.
Neruda on the Park is the story of a mother and daughter, gentrification in NYC, race, class, and generational differences. Set in Nothar Park in NYC, a predominantly Dominican area, Vladimir and Eusebia Guerrero have raised their daughter Luz and now face being bought out from the home they’ve had for twenty years. When an old, burned out tenement is bought and torn down, Eusebia is determined to fight it, to protect this neighborhood that has been her home for two decades, the place where she raised her daughter and dutifully cared for her family and her neighborhood. Because a luxury condo building is going up and the landlords of the surrounding buildings want to turn the apartments into condos, essentially forcing out the lively Dominican community.
At nearly thirty, Luz is a successful lawyer being mentored by a high powered female lawyer who sees strong potential in Luz. Until Luz is summarily fired for no clear reasons. Left floundering, she madly tries to piece her life back together, unexpectedly sparking a romance with the very man in charge of building the luxury condos in her neighborhood. Their romance is hot and intense and offers the freedom Luz needs from under her mother’s thumb to determine what she really wants out of her life, but it sets mother and daughter on opposite sides even as Vladimir quietly builds his and Eusebia’s dream house back in the Dominican Republic.
Initially drawn to the mother-daughter dynamic, Neruda on the Park turned into a deeply personal kind of read for me. It’s not my usual kind of read, and I did feel the beginning took too long to get moving, but, once it did and once all the threads started to weave together and unravel, I was riveted. I loved the story of the mother who wants to protect and save her home with everything in her, because the definition of home has changed and she’s tired of giving and giving and giving. I also loved the story of the daughter raised to be Dominican American who cares about her community, but, like many young Americans, is more focused on herself and finding her own way. I loved seeing their stories intertwine, loved watching them develop and find their own needs, wants, and places. In some ways, I found it to be a powerful story of women, but it also touches on class and race and the difference between generations.
Eusebia is the kind of mother who puts her husband and child first, who is the first awake to prepare breakfast, the last to eat, and the one who shoulders the responsibility for her family. There were times when I wanted to scream at her to just let her husband and daughter take care of themselves and just take a day off, but there are cultural differences between her and me and I respect the one she comes from. It’s an integral part of her character, making the sudden crazy shift in her startling, but fascinating. I was riveted by her, by the changes she underwent, while also horrified at some of what she sought to do. She really felt like she was unraveling throughout the story, but, because of everything everyone around her was going through, no one realized, which was amazingly scary but also completely believable. She’s a mother who wants the best for her daughter and a community member who has grown to love this place she has called home for two decades.
Luz felt like the stereotypical young American woman who thinks only of herself. Groomed to be successful by her mother and then her mentor, she only expects accolades and promotions, until it all comes crashing down and she turns a selfish eye on herself and what she wants instead of serving her community and family as her mother does. She chooses to take the time to find her next step, balking at the dreams her mother has for her. As her mother fights the building of luxury condos, Luz becomes romantically entangled with the man behind it. But she’s also in on her father’s secret, so the fact that her parents will be ousted from their apartment is no big deal. She fails to see what it all means to her mother because her own problems are more pressing. And yet she’s there for her community, she suspects something is off with her mother, but I also got the feeling she was unwilling to throw herself into her neighborhood. Her development was soft and slow, sometimes feeling like it was sparked by the story instead of by who she was, but I still liked it, and really loved the way her story ended.
Neruda on the Park is so much more than the story of a mother and daughter. It touches on race, bringing black Dominicans into the spotlight. I liked that it focuses on a black Dominican family, that they speak Spanish, that others are surprised that they’re black and Spanish-speaking. I also loved that the neighborhood was vibrant and willing to come together to do whatever necessary. They relied on each other, helped each other. Luz was the one who really came in contact with those outside of her community. I enjoyed reading the surprise and easy dismissal of her race by various characters. And, through Luz, the reader also gets a taste of class differences. Surrounded by wealthy, high powered people with the world at their fingertips, her reality is that she is an immigrant. Yet she buys into what those outside her culture offer, buying the clothes, the jewelry, the shoes, and wanting to live in a specific area. I did like that the man she dates, Hudson, met Luz’s family, saw where she was from, and still loved her. But I never got the feeling that Luz and Hudson really explored their differences. What initially felt like a sweet romance eventually turned into something that felt uncomfortable to me and uncomfortably sexist, but ended up helping to be the kick Luz needed to really figure out her place.
But my favorite part of Neruda on the Park were the generational differences between Eusebia and Luz. Eusebia’s youth was full of childish pursuits, but I suppose she always knew it was her duty to take care of her family. We see her feeding her family, doing the chores, guiding Luz through her childhood from success to success, making sure her husband never has to worry about her and can instead feel free to ignore her when his work as a police detective gets too heavy. She bears all the burdens, and does it silently. And then there’s Luz who feels incredibly selfish next to her mother, who doesn’t take the time to see what’s happened to her mother and understand her personality changes are actually quite drastic and scary. I struggled through much of the book to understand how a daughter like Luz could become a mother like Eusebia. It kind of felt like a switch was flicked on, but it was also done in steps and I really enjoyed watching the progression as Luz finally grew up and Eusebia made certain choices. It felt like they went from being at odds with each other to somehow joining each other on the same plane. Watching them circle each other warily was a lot of fun and, in the end, I really felt invested in this family and their future.
Neruda on the Park really came to life in my mind because of the setting. As far as I can tell Nothar Park doesn’t actually exist, though I’d love to be proven wrong. It felt like a small neighborhood, but I loved how colorful and close-knit it was. The people who were there when Eusebia and Luz moved to be with Vladimir are still there: the girl from downstairs Luz grew up with has a family of her own there now, and the Tongues (three identical elderly sisters) keep watch on the neighborhood where the children Luz grew up with are adults with jobs and families. There’s a history to this place that felt rich and real and I could believe I was reading about a real community, that I could go there and see all the characters in this book come to life. The neighborhood and their culture felt so real to me that the lines between reality and fiction started to blur.
Neruda on the Park is a beautiful story not just of a mother and daughter, but of gentrification, race, class, family, and finding one’s own path forward. This story really packs it in, but I never felt like it was rushed. The characters developed at what mostly felt like a natural rate, and Eusebia’s was especially fascinating. The two stories did feel a little contrived in order to go together and Eusebia’s story sometimes felt completely unrealistic, but I loved the way the book ended.
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Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
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