Gretchen lives a small life. It started the night a man forced her to the ground and then told her to run, his own terror taking hold of her. Now she keeps to the small safe neighborhood surrounding her home, places where nothing bad can happen. And then she meets the boy who looks like him. Like the one who attacked her. When she meets Phoenix, though, she isn’t afraid. Something about the way he listens, the way he asks the right questions, the way he carries his own trauma and fear, makes her trust him. Soon she’s tangled up in his life and the desperate attempt to save him and his brother from death at the hand of gang members waiting for him back in Ilopango. To stay safe, he must be granted asylum in the US, a rare occurrence for El Salvadoran refugees.
On its face, this is a simple romance. Sad girl meets sadder boy. Both find that to love they must be brave and work toward healing. Underneath that simple story is a deeper, more heartrending one. This is the story of a boy whose home town gave him two choices: live by the gang or die by it. It’s the story of a small Atlanta suburb and the community thousands of miles from El Salvador still affected by the destruction of gang violence.
I feel like I’m not doing a very good job talking this book up because it’s such a serious topic. There are some light moments in which Phoenix and Gretchen joke around. At one point, she makes it her mission to find pupusas, a delicacy that Phoenix remembers from home and craves but can’t find in the US, and that whole adventure is fun and sweet. Phoenix meets a couple who own a tattoo shop (and also remove tattoos) and befriends them. Their quirky personalities brighten up several scenes, and they offer some timely wisdom.
This is a little darker than Marquardt’s first novel, but still definitely worth reading. It took me some time to acclimate to Phoenix’s voice, but other than that, I really enjoyed the story. Definitely add this one to your list if you’re looking for an unusual romance or book that explores social issues.
Phoenix and his brother are from El Salvador. He lives in the US during the story but vividly remembers events in his home in Ilopango.
Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used with moderate frequency. The sections from Phoenix’s point-of-view contain a lot more profanity than the sections from Gretchen’s point-of-view.
Some scenes show kissing between a boy and girl. At one point the two fall asleep together fully clothed. They briefly discuss waiting to have sex.
Phoenix lives under the guardianship of an older lesbian couple. Phoenix mentions seeing them kiss a couple of times.
Gretchen remembers being attacked (not sexually). Phoenix recalls some brutal gang violence and bullying. One boy shoots another from a car.
Gretchen’s (still underage) college boyfriend orders a beer with dinner. No one checks his ID.