Love and Trauma in the Wilds of California

YERBA BUENA, by Nina LaCour

When Sara, one of the protagonists in “Yerba Buena,” was a girl, she and her family used to play a game. They started with a blank piece of paper. Each person in turn would begin to sketch, slowly building the scene. As Sara and her brother watched, “their father moved his pencil, faint lines that turned — as if by magic — into places and things they recognized.” Suddenly, there it was: an entire world, familiar yet strange, and within it, a story.

This, too, is how Nina LaCour, who won a Printz Award for her young adult literature, weaves together her first adult novel. Chapter by chapter, she switches between perspectives to craft a quiet love story about two young women in Southern California who are figuring out what it means to build a home and to choose to invite someone to share in it.

The book’s title, which translates to good herb, comes from the native flora of California, and the stories of both characters start there, too: Sara in a redwood grove, finding first love with her best friend amid the ancient trunks, and Emilie in a school garden, seeking refuge from a tumultuous home life in the stalks of verbena and mint. From there, the book hopscotches forward, flashing through Sara and Emilie’s young adulthood a few months at a time and laying a foundation of adolescent trauma that will shape our two protagonists.

It takes a while for the story to gain momentum as Sara and Emilie’s lives slowly chug through a collision course toward each other. In the first 100 pages, we encounter death, addiction, sexual abuse, teenage runaways and a litany of other miseries. Many of the themes — of young characters disconnected from community, thrust into the world alone and struggling to build a new version of family and identity — will be familiar to those who have read LaCour’s young adult work, although here the details of these stories, particularly Sara’s, are more explicit, even bordering at times on gratuitous.

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