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Book Review: Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera

Image of a digital book cover. A neon purple palm tree against a dark purple background. The title is in white across the trunk of the palm tree.

Summary:
Lit by the neon glow of Miami, this heady, Spanglish debut novel follows a Colombian teenager’s coming-of-age and coming out as she plunges headfirst into lust and evangelism.

Uprooted from Bogotá into an ant-infested Miami townhouse, fifteen-year-old Francisca is miserable in her strange new city. Her alienation grows when her mother is swept up in an Evangelical church, replete with abstinent salsa dancers and baptisms for the dead. But there, Francisca meets the magnetic Carmen: head of the youth group and the pastor’s daughter. As her mother’s mental health deteriorates, Francisca is saved and falls for Carmen, even as their relationship hurtles toward a shattering conclusion.

Review:
I’ve been learning Spanish off-and-of since I was nine or so, only getting more serious in the last few years. I thought this delightful mix of queerness, Miami, and being an evangelical teenager would be the perfect match for my first dive into a Spanglish book. It absolutely held my interest with its unique and engaging storyline.

I was raised varying flavors of Evangelical, so the thing that struck me immediately when reading this was how easy it was for me to decipher certain bits of Spanish just from what my own churches said. (Out of curiosity, I double-checked with a dictionary, and I was indeed correct). The depiction of Evangelicalism is just so spot on. The only thing that seemed odd to me was the idea of baptizing a dead baby – major plot point of the beginning of the book. I’ve literally never heard of this being done in any Evangelical church. But an aspect of being Evangelical (non-denominational) is each church interprets the Bible in their own way, so I gave this a pass as being a quirk of this particular church that seems to be largely made up of converts from Catholicism.

What was most engaging to me about the book was Francisca’s slow sexual awakening. How she’s not sure if what she’s feeling when alone with Carmen is Jesucristo or perhaps the Espíritu Santo or perhaps something else? This all leads up to a scene between Carmen and Francisca that I found absolutely simultaneously erotic and moving and yet they don’t actually do anything sexual. What this book does a great job depicting, actually, is how emotional and spiritual intimacy can hold so much more realness than sexual touching.

There are also two chapters in the book dedicated to Francisca’s mother’s teen years (Mami) and Francisca’s grandmother’s teen years (Tata). I found myself with much more empathy for Mami than Tata after reading these. But I also appreciated how they demonstrated the spiritual and relationship struggles across generations.

One thing that did turn me off from the characters was how the whole family seems to have a dislike for animals (as in living animals, not as in they don’t eat them). This just…confuses me. How can you dislike all animals? For Tata, the dislike extends beyond mere preference in a way I couldn’t forgive. With Francisca, I tried to brush her dislike of the local ducks off as general teenage grumpiness, especially at being uprooted from home in Bogotá, but after seeing how Tata was as a teenager, I suspect it just is the way the family is. I’m a big lover of animals, so that made it harder for me to relate to the characters.

Some reviews dislike the unanswered questions in the book – like why did the family have to leave Bogotá? I forgave this because it’s narrated by a teenager. When there’s upheaval in the family life of teens, many of them won’t go into great details about it. They’ll just be like – this is happening and it’s terrible. So I found that to be quite authentic to the teenaged narrator’s voice. Someone else pointed out that they never go to school in Miami. I would say…school is never discussed. But the more I think about it, the more this makes sense to me. The church is all-encompassing to Francisca. Of course it’s all she talks about to us. It’s all that matters. Nothing important happened at school. In contrast in Bogotá her entire life was school because school was also the church for her, as she attended Catholic school. It makes sense to me.

My experience of this book as a Spanish language learner was that it was just the right mix of things I understood, things I could guess from context, and things I had to look up (many of which turned out to be Colombian slang). I can’t guess what your experience would be if you are bilingual or routinely speak Spanglish yourself. I’d be interested to hear your experience if that describes you. Did you find the Spanglish authentic? If you don’t know any Spanish, I’d say that you can still get the jist of the story without looking up every single word, but you’ll miss some of Francisca’s sense of humor and personality. It might be worth looking up at least some of the longer sentences or repeated words (which are usually swear words) to get some context.

Overall, this is a unique read with a fun setting and a well-rounded main character. I didn’t always like her but I found myself rooting for her nonetheless, and I enjoyed practicing my Spanish along the way.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 240 pages – average but on the shorter side 

Source: library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)