Review: Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal

**Thanks to the publisher for kindly providing me with a free copy for my honest review on NetGalley! My little Puerto Rican heart was screaming for days!**

Lupe visits Puerto Rico every summer with her father, but this year she has to make the trip alone. What a time to be visiting the island, though — lurking the streets of Puerto Rico is something that is killing off a formerly tight-knit group of teens one by one. Lupe must join forces with Javier, who she can’t seem to stand, in order to put a stop to the murders that are sweeping San Juan — and may be coming for Javier himself.

A book set in Puerto Rico? El Cuco is the star of the show (and my childhood nightmares)? I. AM. READY.

Or maybe not. Folks, let’s talk about how one of my most anticipated reads became my biggest disappointment this year.

What I Liked:

The setting. Let me just get a little personal here for a second. I haven’t been to Puerto Rico since 2005. It was around the time of Hurricane Katrina (I think maybe a week or two apart?) and it was for my grandfather’s funeral. Up until that time, I had gone to the island every summer, if not every other summer, and sitting in my family’s home those few days, I didn’t quite realize that it would take me years and years to go back. I didn’t know how much I would miss the sights and sounds of Puerto Rico the way I do, had no way of knowing that with passing time, I would only grow hungrier to really understand where my family comes from. The book did not disappoint with the setting. I felt like I was there on the island, and I felt a strange emotion (maybe the cousin of homesickness?) reading about it, though I’d only ever been there for short periods of time each year. I missed my family, and I oddly missed the places that were yet to be illuminated in my own personal history.

El Cuco (sort of — more on this later). Both of my parents are Puerto Rican, though the three of us were born and raised in New York City. Even in this urban jungle, they (or maybe I should just put the blame on Mom for this one) couldn’t resist bringing El Cuco into my life. Every Puerto Rican is familiar with this monster. You could say he’s like the island’s version of the boogeyman. Mom decided to kick up the terror an extra level and tell me he lived in our apartment, waiting to be set free (apparently my grandma did that to her too, but talking to some people who grew up on the island revealed that their household did not house El Cuco. Lucky). What I’m getting at here is, it was so nice to see something from my childhood in a fictional book. It added a mix of fear and comfort to the reading experience.

What I Didn’t Like:

The mystery. I think anybody familiar with El Cuco would know why he would ever come after someone. The fact that the characters spent so much time trying to figure out his motives drove me nuts. Probably even if you aren’t Puerto Rican, it’s glaringly obvious. I was really hoping for some sort of twist on him (does him killing people count? I don’t really count it. It was always in the realm of possibility for me), but instead I was disappointed. It took forever to get things moving, and then it was wrapped up so quickly and in such a ridiculous way.

LUPE. Oh my goodness. She was my biggest issue. I couldn’t stand her. Lupe is half Irish (on her mom’s side) and half Puerto Rican (on her father’s side), but she takes almost completely after her mother. Light & straight hair, blue eyes, the whole nine yards. Understandably, she struggles with her own identity, as when she’s Stateside (Vermont? Virginia? I can’t remember where she’s from because I try my best to push her from my memory), she feels “too Puerto Rican” for her peers, but on the island, she obviously sticks out. Admittedly, I’m fortunate enough to live in the most diverse borough of an already diverse city, a city with no shortage of Puerto Rican residents. But I could still identify with Lupe’s feelings of inadequacy when faced with what she calls “How Puerto Rican Are You” tests. She deals with a lot more than I do; when she’s on the island, people automatically assume she doesn’t speak any Spanish, nor carry any Puerto Rican blood. I never have that problem going to the island. Nobody there would ever doubt my blood — they’d probably just know immediately that I’m not islandborn the second I start speaking for more than a minute.

But it’s the way Lupe deals with this that drove me up a wall. I was so ready for conversations about identity and belonging, and mostly it was Lupe yelling at people for not automatically knowing she’s Puerto Rican. My childhood best friend was also half white, half Boricua, with the blondest hair and bluest eyes you’d ever seen, and picturing her as Lupe going for people’s throats for speaking to her in English made me roll my eyes. Obviously, nobody should deny Lupe’s heritage just for the color of her skin. But surely it’s understandable that people would make that first mistake? Lupe also argues with other characters, who were born on the island, about their Puerto Rican-ness, and how hers is “no different”. Someone calls her out on it (Javier, if I recall correctly), reminding her that her experiences as a Stateside-born Boricua would be vastly different from his as an island-born one, and that’s okay. I think this would have been a perfect time to remind Lupe of her white-passing privilege as well, but there wasn’t much of that (if at all). I couldn’t help but think back to With The Fire On High, another book with a half-Boricua main character that explores themes of identity and doesn’t shy away from the hard parts of the conversation.

ALSO. There were many times Lupe gets angry and someone says “Well, at least we know for sure you’re Puerto Rican with that temper!” Maybe it’s a personal thing but goodness gracious I hate when people say that to me. Can we leave the Latinas-are-so-crazy/angry thing behind already? My anger at your stupidity does not make me more or less Puerto Rican.

Marisol’s villainization. Besides El Cuco, the main villain was a girl on the island named Marisol who has it out for Lupe because she’s a white girl who, in Marisol’s eyes, stands for all of the problems the island is facing. While this obviously leaves something to be said about extremism, I found it a little disturbing that her anger over perfectly valid issues was used as the driving force for her being “bad”. She’s upset over gentrification of the island by the American tourism industry while the island is still recovering from neglect from mainland USA, something that I feel is… quite understandable. When she sees Lupe sticking her nose into things, she’s upset enough to threaten her life multiple times. There’s a scene where Marisol is said to be riled up because she’s just come from a rally regarding the ongoing debate about whether or not Puerto Rico should become a state or gain independence from the US. It was mentioned only then, and it felt completely pointless to me. The fact that the only time very real and difficult issues on the island is brought up is when trying to show how “evil” a character is left quite a sour taste in my mouth. Let me get this straight: Marisol is a bitch because she’s upset about the crumbling state of her home, but we’re supposed to take the side of Lupe, a white girl who comes to the island once a year and whose biggest problem is that people won’t speak to her in Spanish first? You have got to be kidding me. What a missed opportunity to discuss colorism and how we can reconcile prejudice and what it really means to explore identity, not to mention bring awareness to things going on on the island right now.

I was hoping for the two to be able to delve into their issues with one another and maybe even come to a truce, and while (SPOILER!!!!) the latter did happen, it was done in what I can only call insta-friendship. I can’t even get into how unbelievable and quickly it went.

I wanted to love this book so much. The writing wasn’t bad, and I loved having a story take place in Puerto Rico, but overall, this book left me severely annoyed and wanting more. The ending was rushed and silly, and the characters left a lot to be desired. I can only hope that soon we’ll have more books set on the island, at the very least.

What was your most disappointing read this year so far? Why?

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