North of Happy by Adi Alsaid

I have heard so much about Adi Alsaid, but, until North of Happy, I had not read any of his books. Reviewers either love or hate him, but I walked away feeling neither emotion, more just a feeling of “this is it?” North of Happy was not shocking good, nor was it shockingly bad. It was just okay.

27391973Alsaid’s fourth novel follows Carlos, a teenager drifting through life after his brother is tragically killed. Carlos lives in Mexico City, and one of my biggest disappointments with North of Happy is that we did not get to see his neighborhood at all. With such an interesting setting, especially one Alsaid knows wells, seeing as he grew up there, I was sad to see Carlos jet off to Seattle the first chance he got.  This feeling of lost potential is one I felt throughout the novel. There were so many places I wished Alsaid elaborated- from setting to characters, and everywhere in between. The only place I really felt Alsaid’s potential shine through was when he was describing the food Carlos was making or eating.

As in many classic coming of age novels, the protagonist wants to be something unthinkable to his upper-class parents. In the particular novel, Carlos wants to be a chef, much to the distaste of his wealthy, banker father. When Carlos described the food he was eating, the novel became transcendent, the words electric. I mean, I’m a vegetarian, but there were more than a few instances where I would have happily ate what Carlos was preparing. These moments made me forget my qualms with the novel and instead happily read further.

“What makes a taco perfect?”
“Beautiful question,” Felix said. “It’s a taco that tastes as good as the idea of a taco itself. A taco that’ll hold steadfast through memory’s attempt to erase it, a taco that’ll be worthy of the nostalgia that it will cause. A taco that won’t satisfy or fill but will satiate your hunger. Not just for tonight but for tacos in general, for food, for life-it-fucking-self, brother. You will feel full to your soul… It’s also a taco that will make you hunger for more tacos like it, for more tacos at all, for food, the joy of it, the beauty of it. .”

While North of Happy certainly succeeding in making me hungry, the plot of the novel fell victim to a  misogynistic trope. Carlos’ love interest, Emma was a manic pixie dream girl, or “a type of female character depicted as… appealingly quirky, whose main purpose… is to inspire a greater appreciation for life in a male protagonist.” Emma felt contrived and like a tool for Carlos’ character development, not a free thinking, complex female character. Her story arc read as merely “Carlos’ forbidden romance,” not “Emma discovering she is an independent woman.”

North of Happy was disappointing most of the time. I wish Alsaid would have written more about the setting of Mexico City, and even a little more on Seattle. But, the thing I wish North of Happy had most was complex female characters, not a manic pixie dream girl who has a frigid, career- driven, man repellant mom (a whole different trope I won’t get into). It is clear Alsaid is not a bad writer. He just needs a little more practice.

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