Pen & Xander by Laekan Zae Kemp
Published: October 31st, 2017
Genre: Contemporary, Romance, Young Adult
Pen Prado has a passion for cooking. Specifically, cooking her father’s food in her father’s restaurant. It’s the heart of their immigrant neighborhood, a place where everyone belongs, and second chances are always on the menu. Except for Pen. Despite the fact that there’s something almost magical about her food, her father can’t imagine anything worse than her following in his footsteps. And when Pen confesses to keeping a secret from her family, he fires her, ensuring she never will. Xander Amaro is undocumented but that doesn’t stop Ignacio Prado from offering him a job at his restaurant. For Xander, it’s a chance to make amends and to sever his toxic relationship with the drug lord, El Cantil–a man who’s been like a father to him since his own disappeared. Soon after, his mother abandoned him too, leaving behind a void that not even his Abuelo can fill. Until he meets Pen. Both seeking a place where they feel like they truly belong, they end up finding each other, and in the face of tremendous fear and self-doubt, they end up finding themselves.
*Thank you to the publishers, for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review*
“That, that you’re feeling…is passion.” She takes my hand. “And the thing about passion, Pen, is that it chooses you, born the second you are.”
I was struck by how much I truly loved this story. Pen and Xander is a contemporary romance but it didn’t feel like one. It had all the bells and whistles of one but it didn’t feel boring or mundane. I can’t really describe the feeling besides that I just really loved the story the author told. The flow and pacing were like that of an adventure story but also calm. It was romance but the story didn’t feel centered on it as a contemporary romance often is. Pen and Xander were built around love, family, and food. It was built around a community where two people belonged and were broken and somehow through food, family, and love started piecing themselves together little by little with each other. I love how the story ended because although it was happy the author didn’t make it like all their mental health issues disappeared. It ended with the thought of them finally starting to feel like they can work through it but, also realizing there will be days when it is all too much and THAT IS OK. If any of you deal with mental health issues I just want to tell you what Xander said to Pen in the book and that it that it is ok to not ALWAYS be ok. If you feel like it is all too much and have to cry then do it! Life is not easy and sometimes you will struggle there is nothing wrong with you. I promise if you keep fighting every day you will overcome. Maybe it will never leave you completely but, as long as on those days you still fight and don’t let it break you, you will overcome. I always pray for anyone I know that is dealing with mental health so, even if I don’t know your name know you are in my prayers.
He looks up at me. “You’re coming home…” I realize that fixing what’s broken isn’t just about him making amends. It’s about him coming home too. I take the stick, drawing a giant X in the rubble right next to my name. “We both are.”
Pen & Xander was all about the struggles of this town in Texas and the people living there. The drug cartel ran the town and kept everyone in fear and this was what centered the story. This piece is what made it not feel so much like a boring every day contemporary romance because it had a series problem and solution build up. The flow of everything felt very natural and thought out. But, we also the book had a running theme about dreams and passion that was webbed so beautifully into the story regarding Pen’s dream of a bakery and Xander’s dream of a father who left him. The final outcome won’t disappoint.
2) Writing/World Building
“She’s gorgeous and despite the fact that she could sometimes be intimidating, she also makes me feel like I can say absolutely anything because I know she will too. There’s a power in that that I can’t get enough of.”
The world building wasn’t necessary here but the author still was very descriptive in helping us to imagine this community of people. The food described was so meticulous I actually got seriously hungry and now I have a major craving for cake and Arroz con habichuelas, chicharron de Pollo, tostones, mofongo, and many more of my Latin foods.
“He looks into my eyes, searching for the little boy who used to worship him. I search his eyes too, for the man who gave me somewhere to belong. I was just too young and desperate to know the cost.”
I loved all the reading about all these Latin people that were like me. In the food, the expressions, the language, and the culture it felt very home for me as a Latin woman. I understood a lot so I connected with it especially the whole aspect of the food helping and bringing the people together because that is very big in my culture. I really loved how similar Pen & Xander were to each other with their tough exteriors but broken interiors and the growth we got to see was tremendous. I think the author touched on something big with the adults in this book and how they really wanted better for their kids but sometimes they don’t look at the kids’ dream. Ultimately those dreams align but people can be hard headed when they try to protect someone they love. The side characters were marvelous.
I don’t hold back. “I think I’m in love with you, Pen.”
This romance was crafted really beautifully. It wasn’t instant love but it was an instant connection and it felt very realistic because it was two people with similar feelings and could see past the exteriors of one another. You saw how they built this connection into something more based on how they could see the broken parts of one another. I loved how neither pushed the other though they worked through the things together and respected each other enough to know when to push and when to let them just cry. It was so beautiful and I loved how it wasn’t him taking care of her or her taking care of him. It was them taking care of each other.
If you aren’t that into contemporary romance I say give this a try because it really surprised me and took my breath away. I finished it in one day and was blown away by how much it resonated with me. If you read this, what did you think?