Another Great Book by Adi Alsaid
NORTH OF HAPPY begins with an adventure. Carlos and Felix Portillo are brothers who are marching through Mexico City on a quest for the perfect taco. Carlos is a high school senior, and he’ll be following the expected life path of graduation, internship, college, and family business as laid out by his father. His mother has coddled him, and both parents are desperate for Carlos to avoid following in his brother’s footsteps: Felix is a college dropout and a wanderer who is always searching for the next thing that will make him happy.
During the Night of the Perfect Taco, tragedy strikes and Felix is killed. And so begins Carlos’s next adventure: managing life without his big brother, and figuring out what to do with the grief that consumes him. Carlos’s grief manifests itself in the form of Felix’s ghost. Felix is everywhere, and he’s always offering advice with his own brand of humor. When Carlos leaves Mexico City to fulfill a dream that he and Felix had—to visit the famous restaurant of Chef Elise St. Croix in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state—Felix’s ghost follows along and is a constant companion during Carlos’s time there. What started as a plan for one meal and departure from the island extends into a layered story of discovery.
NORTH OF HAPPY is a book about family, love, creative passion, and grief. As in his previous novels, Adi Alsaid writes with a mature and believable contemporary teen voice. Carlos is a sweet and smart character, and his time on Needle Eye Island is equal parts realistically magical and incredibly challenging. Carlos falls for Emma, the daughter of Chef Elise, and Emma helps him get a job as a dishwasher at the restaurant. Given the opportunity to cook the staff meals leads to Carlos catching the interest of Chef Elise, and she begins to train him. I loved the parts of the novel that focused on the restaurant, cooking, and the food, and Carlos’s character was more alive there than in any other scenes. His romance with Emma had the necessary drama and complications, but it still managed to be sweet and somewhat innocent. Felix’s appearances throughout the narrative added humor and insight without being preachy.
NORTH OF HAPPY is a great book. My biggest complaint with it is that there wasn’t an accompanying cookbook because I would really love to try some of the dishes whose ingredients are listed at the opening of each chapter. NORTH OF HAPPY’s look at the grieving process and how that can force a person to think about their own mortality is never heavy handed (despite the presence of a advice-dispensing ghost), and the love story isn’t too overwrought. The pacing is sometimes slow, but that adds to the dream-like tone of some aspects of the story. And the reader can always count on a kitchen scene to spice things up. I highly recommend this book—and Alsaid’s others too. He’s definitely on the short list of authors whose books I will pick up to read without needing any detail beyond the fact that he wrote it.
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.
A look inside a restaurant kitchen