Sereno, having caught his husband in bed with a young boy of 16 (the same age he was when he first met and was seduced by Mitchell), is visiting Puerto Rico to reconnect with his estranged cousin, Esteban. Sereno needs time to recover from the nightmare of a divorce, and he’s feeling the need to surround himself with family. Esteban’s coffee plantation is more beautiful than any dream Sereno could have come up with on his own, and the coffee is to die for. But even the most glorious scenery and delicious coffee pales in comparison to the handsome Chocolate, Esteban’s best friend.
Chocolate, like his nickname, is both bitter and sweet. He flirts with Sereno one moment, dismisses him the next, but after Sereno beats a bigot bloody at the bar, something between them changes. Chocolate’s heated glances become touches burning their way over Sereno’s skin, and one kiss turns into more … so much more. Sereno knows it’s happening too fast, but he’s already in love with Chocolate. However, looming on the horizon is Hurricane Maria and Sereno and Chocolate’s fragile new relationship will be put to an unforgiving test.
I’m conflicted on this story. There is a great deal to like here, and the author’s love for Puerto Rico and his horror at the devastation of the hurricane are achingly real. However, Sereno and Chocolate were both off-putting in the extreme, leaving me wishing that I was reading Esteban’s story instead of Sereno’s.
Sereno is a selfish, self-centered man — in part because his world has come apart all around him. His husband, who groomed him from the age of 16, abandoned him for another child, and he’s left fighting for pieces of his dignity. For all Sereno’s prestige working as a writer for a popular chocolate and coffee delivery service, his cousin (though they’re more like brothers, with the closeness and love for one another they share) seems to have it much better, with a loving and devoted wife, a gorgeous coffee plantation and a thriving business, and loving friends and family. Not that he compares them; Sereno’s honestly happy for his cousin and loves him deeply. He never once tries to compare their lives or ways of living.
It’s a different story when it comes to Choco, however. When first introduced to Chocolate, Sereno can’t take his eyes off him and carefully, shyly flirts back. However, when he’s told the other man is straight (Chocolate was married, and kept company with quite a few pretty women), Sereno accepts that fact and, while he still lusts for him, doesn’t make any moves on him. Until Chocolate does. Chocolate is so hot and cold in those early moments, going from ignoring Sereno to aggressively teasing, from insulting to predatory. Chocolate tells Sereno he’s gay and takes Sereno’s confusion (he thought Choco was straight, after all) as an insult. It isn’t until Sereno gets drunk in a bar with Esteban and beats up another man making fun of him for being gay that Chocolate decides he wants Sereno. But not until after he gets him drunk.
Chocolate admits this to Sereno, who is drunk enough and horny enough not to care. Chocolate tells Sereno he’s drawn to the hurt and insecurities he can see in the other man, and tells him he wants to make Sereno ‘clean.’ It’s not romance, to me, when one person tells the other they planned to get their partner drunk so they’d be an easy lay. And that the only reason they want them is to change them, even if it’s phrased as ‘healing.’ Chocolate doesn’t know at this point about Sereno’s relationship with Mitchell; it’s all projection and imagination and leaves me feeling more than a little uncomfortable and disgusted.
Things only get worse from there. As they slowly begin to fall in lust/love, the men have a fight about Sereno not wanting to stay in Puerto Rico forever, especially after the hurricane destroys houses, cities, and even Esteban’s farm. Sereno whines that Choco won’t talk to him after their fight, and on the day Choco’s mother goes missing, he whines because Choco didn’t stay to let Sereno talk to him, instead going to look for his missing, elderly, sick mother. When Choco finally does find his mother, injured and suffering from exposure, Choco doesn’t come to make up with Sereno after stitching up his elderly mother and then tending to his own injuries suffered while looking for her, which makes Sereno sad.
The sex scenes between them felt mechanical and obligatory, with the requisite gushy emotions and protestations of love that felt a little stilted and clumsy. It’s a personal thing, but considering the lack of lube, some small phrases, and the mention of breasts in a few scenes, I couldn’t help but wonder if the character of Sereno had, in an earlier draft, been female (I do not believe he is intended to be trans). That aside, there was just something bland about them that, combined with the emotional, quixotic nature of Chocolate and the absolute selfishness and self-centeredness of Sereno, made this an unenjoyable part of the book for me.
However, there is a bright and interesting story here revolving around Sereno’s cousin, Esteban. Esteban cares for his workers and his island. He keeps men on the payroll who do crap work because no one else will hire them, and because one has children and a wife to feed. When everything is destroyed by the hurricane, he’s compassionate and optimistic, determined to take care of anyone who needs help — and to protect them — and even when, in the midst of all this, Sereno decides he just has to be taken to the airport some hours away … he takes him. Because he’s a good man and a good cousin.
As much as I enjoyed what bits of Esteban’s story as I got, and as much as I appreciated the author’s delicate way of handling the reality of Hurricane Maria without getting on a soap box about what did and didn’t happen afterwords, I couldn’t stand either Sereno or Chocolate and didn’t enjoy any scene where the two of them were together. Regretfully, I suggest you pass on this book.