Yerba Buena is the Spanish name (literally translating to “good herb”) for clinopodium douglasii, a refreshingly-scented herb from the mint family that grows in abundance along the West Coast of North America. In Nina LaCour’s first non-young adult novel of the same name, sprigs of the fresh-smelling plant (as well as an abstraction of the herb in the form of an eponymously-named restaurant) appear at turning points within the lives of Sara and Emilie. These two women briefly find each other in the proverbial eye of the hurricane of their tumultuous lives and choose to return to each other. In the characters’ most deciding moments, the minty scent calms and revitalizes the two characters; the minty herb appears in — and sometimes leads to — magically mundane moments in this realistically heart-wrenching lovers’ tale.
“Yerba Buena,” intense with foggy timelines that are woven in a seemingly scattered way, begins with Sara, a 16-year-old looking for her recently missing girlfriend in a haunting small town in Northern California. Portions of the novel follow her as she runs away to Los Angeles and grows into one of the city’s best bartenders. The plot line flips between Sara and Emilie, a shy Haitian American student grappling with her identity, reluctant to leave university as she falls in and out of interests she hopes will turn her life around. She moves between jobs as an office assistant and a florist, and eventually, when she gives up on finding a dream career, she pursues interior design. The first half of the book vividly portrays shreds of the characters’ backstories. The two circle each other from afar until, one day, they meet again at the bar of Emilie’s favorite restaurant, Yerba Buena (where Sara works). Then, they continually fall out — and back in — with each other, struggling through their late twenties as they grapple with seemingly all-consuming feelings for each other.
LaCour’s strength lies in her characters: Emilie, always the quiet one, watches others’ stories unfold around her, too afraid to tell her own. LaCour writes one of my favorite lines in recent memory with, “She did what she did best: she fell out of herself and into his story.” Emilie is a typical LaCour heroine: a quieter sapphic who’s unsure of her place and frustrated with her stagnancy. Sara, then, brings the “adult” in LaCour’s first novel aimed at older audiences. Denied her childhood, Sara’s emotional distance from those around her is palpable as she builds a self-sufficient life after running away from her family home as a teenager. Her apathy can sometimes border on unrealistic, but as the reader looks into her mind, it’s impossible not to realize the undercurrents of hurt that tinge Sara’s narration. Watching Sara realize her pain and hope for a story to challenge the heavy reality of her life, observing Emilie become fed up of staying quiet and thus evolve into a talented storyteller and most of all, seeing the two care for each other in this snapshot of a moment on their tiring journeys, is touching.
As a long-time reader of LaCour, I quickly settled into her gentle way of describing the setting of ferns and banana slugs and gorgeously-arranged flowers in “Yerba Buena.” There is no way to describe the book except as refreshingly hopeful, yet literary within the wave of sapphic fiction in recent years. As usual, LaCour’s viscerally-written, nuanced yet simple Queer YA (and now adult) stories excel with quietly strong heroines that find poetry even in the midst of internal reckonings. It would be an overly simplistic comparison to describe LaCour’s writing as similar to Sally Rooney in its scope: After all, the former’s writing holds precious its setting’s mundanely sensual details, while the latter’s key feature is often dialogue depicting pessimistic miscommunication. However, both writers borrow extensively from the other’s key devices — in “Yerba Buena,” Emilie and Sara don’t talk for years due to a culmination of mishaps of crucial personal information left unsaid, while in Rooney’s “Normal People,” the setting and culture of County Sligo, Ireland is essential to the author’s storytelling. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that “Yerba Buena” (and other titles by Nina LaCour) is more tranquil and possibly less intellectual.
Like “Normal People,” the intentionally vague ending of LaCour’s novel — where it is left unclear whether the two reunite, and one cannot tell if they are reading the future or simply Emilie’s predictions — incites nothing but questions. What is “Yerba Buena?” A tragedy? An everlasting romance for the ages? Perhaps the ending does not matter as much as the time Sara and Emilie spend together; in “Yerba Buena,” the paths of two people who will change each other forever intersect, if only for a while. Sara rediscovers the lightness she lost as a child in Emilie’s presence, and Emilie finds strength in herself. Gut reactions make us, and the characters, wish for the safety of their everlasting union, but Nina LaCour, in writing “so right while it lasted. So sweet, and bitter, too,” urges us to not fixate on the ending, instead valuing the life-altering time that people spend with each other.
Daily Arts Writer Meera Kumar can be reached at email@example.com.