'' ''What you've gotten yourself into...'' she smiles, nostalgic, ''is the most faithful and fucked-up family you will ever meet.'' ''
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 magic 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 druglord, El Cantil--a man whose 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.
This book is about finding where you belong and learning that feeling something, feeling everything is okay.
'' So I have to decide what's scarier: living a life that doesn't belong to me or losing the one I love. ''
At first, I thought it was about food. Then I thought it was a story about teenage love. Then I turned the page, I didn't know what to think next. Pen & Xander is about everything. It tells you about the hardships we may face in life. The fears, the heartbreaks. The ugly and scary things we might see in our lives and around us. In addition, it tells us the beautiful things. The love and friendships we get to have. The feeling of belonging somewhere.
'' I weigh each option, simmering in the anxiety they provoke, in the hope. Because I have to do what scares me. It's the only way to ward off the helplessness. To stay in control. I always have to be in control. ''
The story is told in the dual point of views of Pen Prado and Xander Amaro. This enables the reader to fully merge in the characters lives and thoughts. There's no way the book could have delivered such an intense experience if it would have told in any other form of narratives.
'' My chest tightens at the word. Family. I'm still trying to learn what that means. ''
This book was real. I could almost taste the cooking, smell the Nacho's kitchen, hear the commotion going on in the kitchen. Laekan Zea Kemp's writing lifts the scene from the paper and brings it to life in front of your eyes. Especially, the most emotional and heartbreaking scenes, as well as, the scenes in the kitchen. They just jump to life.
'' It's agony. But I can't let go. Even though it hurts. Even though it scares me. I don't let go. I won't. ''
Penelope, or Pen, doesn't open up much in the beginning. She is closed off, bottling her emotions away, locking them in a box and stuffing it to the farthest corner of her mind. Pen opens up, little by little, learning to deal with her fears. What makes Pen's character so interesting is that how much I could relate to her. She is desperate to feel, to belong, to reach even further and further every day. To do the things that scare her.
'' ''I'm not cold because I don't feel anything. I'm this way... because I feel everything.'' ''
Xander, in the beginning, seems to be the exact opposite of Pen. They say that opposites attract, right? Xander coaxes Pen out of her shell, out in the real world, where it's okay to feel, okay to show some emotion. Xander is the calming force of the book, never panicking, never giving up, even though the situation may seem impossible to survive.
'' ''What if there's no such thing as being ready? What if the only difference between being ready and not being ready is a decision?'' -- ''A decision I make.'' ''
I can't even begin to express how much I loved Pen & Xander. It left me speechless for once. Just go pick it up and read it.